A year ago, the Wisconsin men's basketball team was a curiosity. They had earned the respect of the basketball world, but were largely unknown to the public before crashing the Final Four and breaking brackets across the country.
This year, the team's success was not such a surprise. The Badgers stayed near the top of the polls all year, earned a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, and played their way right back into the Final Four. But along the way, they've done something few other teams ever do on this stage — they've won America's heart.
That's not an easy thing to do. Consider the recent documentary I Hate Christian Laettner to see that court success does not equal popularity.
Making it Look Easy
What's most impressive is how easily it seems to come to this team. As Grantland's Robert Mays wrote, "All tournament — from Frank Kaminsky hitting SportsCenter in capri sweatpants to Nigel Hayes’s stenography fascination — it’s been obvious that no one has been having more fun than Wisconsin."
The Badgers have put a full-court press on all media. Newspapers marvel at Wisconsin's commitment to academics and chart Frank Kaminsky's rise from unheralded recruit into Frank the Tank. On television, the squad is unfazed by celebrity, interviewing Will Ferrell for Access Hollywood and handling the media gauntlet like pros.
They're not the coolest guys around. But they're relaxed, a little goofy, and confident. To see what I mean, just try to watch Frank Kaminsky do the Carlton and not be charmed:
Love and Jealousy
In fact, Wisconsin's charm offensive is so overwhelming that Grantland's Mark Titus (a former Ohio State men's basketball benchwarmer) says, "I'm jealous of the fun Wisconsin is having," he writes. "I love this Wisconsin team so much that I hate them. I hate that they got to go to the Final Four last year, that it was so much fun that all the players who didn’t graduate came back, and that now they get to do it all over again."
The team even has a small celebrity following of its own, as Green Bay Packer's quarterback Aaron Rodger has been shadowing the team, even taking junior forward Sam Dekker under his wing.
Nigel Hayes, Press Conference Star
While Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker have dominated on the court, Nigel Hayes (who's also played well) has been killing it in press conferences. He's managed to be engaging, funny, and charming while giving jaded sportswriters something to print other than bland quotes about giving 110 percent. Sports blogger anonymouseagle even wrote a piece called Nigel Hayes Must Be Stopped. "I don't mean on the court. I mean his ascendance to the role of America's Sweetheart."
As we have documented, Nigel Hayes has turned his curiosity into the world of stenography into a running press conference gag. With every press conference he brings out a new, obscure, and polysyllabic word to make the stenographers for the press pool earn their keep. The act was charming and fun, but Hayes' cute game went thermonucular when a hot mike caught him telling teammates how beautiful he found the stenographer. Again, try to watch this video and not be charmed:
And of course, every team needs a quirky, lovable benchwarmer/team mascot. Enter Aaron Moesch and his moustache, which he's been growing since Wisconsin lost to Maryland late in the regular season. During the broadcast of the Wisconsin Badgers' Sweet 16 victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels, a camera focused on Moesch celebrating in his mustachioed glory. The 'stache has since gone viral, earning the hashtag #moeschstache.
The team's on- and off-court success is almost certainly a byproduct of experience. In an era when few college stars stay more than a year, Wisconsin is led by a senior class that includes Frank Kaminsky, the best player in college basketball.
And of course, Wisconsin's fans have helped the cause. After beating Arizona on Saturday, Bo Ryan was concerned about State Street. "Did anybody hear anything about State Street tonight? Is everything okay?" he asked almost as soon as the game was won.
Of course, Badger fans were elated but restrained. As you can see in images here, the fans are happy, enthusiastic, and polite.
So if you're keeping score, the way to America's heart begins with a love of stenography, embarrassing yourself in press conferences, talking a little too much in postgame interviews, growing out mustaches, and taking Final Four selfies.
Oh, and being really, really good at basketball. Don't forget that part.
photo credit: David Stluka/UW Athletic Communications