Over the course of the next week or so, I have decided to take the time to recap the most memorable experience of my life. I will be doing a full, round-by-round review of my thoughts, sights, and opinions of the NCAA tournament. Here is my fourth one: the Eight 8.
Setting the scene for this one is difficult. The things that were going through my mind before this game were starting to get to me. I drowned myself in video games and whatever else I could do to get my mind off basketball. Shutting my mind off after a basketball game is always the toughest thing to do. Specific plays run through my mind… good plays are prominent, but the bad plays always seem to stick longer. After the Baylor game, my mind wasn't stuck on the previous game. My mind turned towards Arizona.
I must have stayed awake til 2 am after our game because I couldn't stop thinking about having an opportunity to play in the Final Four. For basketball players, that is a dream. It's not something you kind of want, it's something you want more than anything else. No little kid in their driveway reenacts taking a shot that gives a team a regular season victory. They dream of taking the game winning shot in a National Championship - And without getting to the Final Four, that is not a reality. Fact.
To get my mind off of the upcoming game, I went to the mall with my mom and older sister, Kaylee. Being with family takes my mind away from sports. When I got back to the hotel, I played an unhealthy amount of video games. Call of Duty: Ghosts and FIFA 14 are the favorites, and I must have played them for 4 hours straight. I may be an addict, so what?
The more and more I started thinking about Arizona, I started to realize how much I hated them. It's nothing personal against any of their guys, but it's the fact that they stood for everything people think I am not.
Background: my high school career was not like many other players at this level. I went into high school as an immature 6'3" kid who weighed 135 pound soaking wet. I emerged as a legitimate 6'10" by my junior year, and began playing varsity for the first time. I had a good junior season, but I am the person who will do anything to win. I didn't need to score 30 points a game to win in high school because I had a good team. I knew my role and embraced it. That went unnoticed to many people. By the time the AAU season came around, I had a handful of D-1 schools who had contacted me. My own home state school basically told me they didn't think I was good enough to play for them. That pissed me off. The biggest reason I chose Wisconsin was the fact that they believed in me from the beginning. They were one of the first schools involved in recruiting me. They showed that they believed that I could come here, work hard, and make an impact on the program - And that has been true.
Although I am in the right place for me and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else, seeing people like Kaleb Tarczewski pisses me off. Like I said, nothing personal against the kid - It's the fact that schools drooled over him and treated him like he crapped gold. Schools like Arizona never wanted me. Those schools never believed that I would be good enough to play for them. That pisses me off. I take it personally when people are touted as better than me. I hate Anthony Davis. Not because he is a bad person or anything - He is obviously a great basketball player. But in high school, people acted like I wasn't even good enough to step on the court and play against the kid. Things like that drive me. I aim to prove everyone that has ever doubted me wrong. I play basketball pissed off. I am not content just being out there. After a game, I want people thinking "How the hell did that just happen?" - And I get no greater joy than beating the people that are "better" than me. I have a fire inside of me that will never extinguish. The hottest fires make the hardest steel, and I truly believe that. End rant.
Before the Arizona game, I stood on the court pacing from sideline to sideline staring across the court at the other team salivating over the opportunity at hand. I had that feeling before the game that there was no way I was going to let that team beat us. I remember JD coming over to me and telling me that he had a feeling I was going to have a big night, and I agreed.
From the second the ball was tipped I could tell that we wanted to win that game more than them. The game was close the whole time, but if you looked at our team vs. their team, we looked more inspired, and you could tell that we viewed the game in a completely different manner. I know I did. The ending to the game was anti-climatic in the sense that it took forever to review that play, and they still got it wrong, but more in the sense that Arizona didn't even get the final shot off. I didn't know what to do when that buzzer rang. I ran around the court screaming like a child. Hugging everyone, looking to my mom in the crowd and blowing her a kiss like I do after every game, hoisting up people in the air. It was everything I imagined it would be.
The Arizona game was the best performance in a single game of basketball that I have ever played. I have had games where I've scored more points, shot better from the field, rebounded better - But the stakes were much lower in those other games. To be able to play the way I did and boost my team into the Final Four is something I don't think I'll ever be able to put into words. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it as I am writing this. Hoisting that trophy in the air, then hearing over the loud speaker that I had been named the West Regional MVP was, in a sense, the greatest individual accomplishment I have ever garnered, but I couldn't have done that without my team. Basketball isn't a game about individual achievements, it's about sharing experiences with a group of people who become your family.
Cutting down the net and then celebrating in the locker room further solidified to myself that I am so blessed. I said a prayer to my grandfather, who passed away in the middle of the season, and thanked him for looking over me and our team because I know he was. Looking at my phone and seeing students rioting on State Street gave us all that further sense of accomplishment. I mean a bunch of white guys, who many people wrote off before they even played a minute of college basketball, had made it to a Final Four. No one will ever take that from us, and I dare you to try and find a team that was closer than ours.
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