ANAHEIM, Calif. – Barry Alvarez silently nodded.
In front of the Wisconsin athletic director, the biggest party this side of the Fifth Quarter had broken out on the Honda Center floor.
The plucky Badgers had just beaten Arizona in the West Regional to get to their first Final Four since 2000. Alvarez's 66-year-old coach with his own should-be-trademarked style had finally broken through. The kids who did it are as far away from the one-and-done culture as anyone.
This was fun for Barry. Perhaps not so much in the fall. What he had just witnessed was similar to what he and 12 other brave souls will be deciding in a few months.
Alvarez is a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee. They'll be picking football's first Final Four. Alvarez got a taste Saturday of how careers, budgets and championships will be hanging on three little words considered by that football committee.
In or out?
Those three words effectively defined the alternating anguish and elation of Wisconsin's 64-63 West Regional overtime win over top-seeded Arizona.
Amid the crazy, the chaos and the controversial, the Badgers -- this time -- made it in. It didn't look that way when they trailed at halftime. It didn't look that way when Arizona's Nick Johnson drove to the basket down one with 3.2 seconds left in overtime. It certainly didn't look that way when the officials huddled for several minutes, then reversed an out-of-bounds call in Arizona's favor with 2.3 seconds left in overtime.
“If it's going to be that long, we're not getting the ball,” Badgers' coach Bo Ryan said.
When the Wildcats finally did get the ball and that one last gasp, Johnson's heave over Wisconsin's Traevon Jackson clanked at the buzzer.
“I didn't want to give the ref a chance,” Jackson said
There's going to be a lot written and said about those officials. If they didn't steal the game, they certainly upstaged it. Ryan was T'd up in the first half and seemed to be staring daggers at the crew (Bryan Kersey, Tony Greene and Mike Eades) the whole game.
“Those first 10 minutes, internally, there was a lot of gnashing going on,” Ryan said. “Sometimes you can want it too much.”
Ryan's demeanor didn't compare to the death stare from Arizona's Sean Miller when Johnson was called for the offensive foul with 3.2 ticks left.
“It was in the heat of the game,” said Johnson who wouldn't go anywhere near criticism. “I was just trying to make a play for our team.”
The NCAA declined to allow a pool reporter to interview the officials. Instead NCAA officiating coordinator John Adams answered from New York. In a statement he said the officials had 14 angles of the out-of-bounds play.
Thanks, John. From New York.
Any more said about the zebras takes away from Wisconsin. The Badgers rode a 7-foot force from Lisle, Ill., Frank Kaminsky (28 points, 11 rebounds). Kaminsky not only stood up to Arizona 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski but probably earned himself some NBA money. Who knew this array of moves accompanied a kid still growing into his body …
“Mentally, physically and socially,” Ryan added.
All at once, it seemed at the Honda Center. In the two regional games the regional's most outstanding player shot 61 percent, pulled down 15 rebounds and scored 47 points.
“Personally, I think Frank should have been an All-American,” sixth man Nigel Hayes said.
“Frank Kaminsky is the reason Wisconsin is in the Final Four,” Miller said.
Probably right. In 37 withering minutes on Saturday, Kaminsky also contributed three 3s and 11 rebounds (seven offensive). The rest of the Badgers combined to shoot 13 of 41. An imposing game from a not-very-imposing looking player.
“Sometimes you think, ‘Oh, look, Frank's asleep,' Ryan said. “He's not asleep but he's got that sleepy look.”
The Badgers rode a gradual, grinding comeback that lasted the second half and through the overtime. Kaminsky's put back with 70 seconds giving Wisconsin a 64-61 lead, was the eventual winner. These teams grabbed each other by the throat during a weekend when the area experienced two earthquakes -- a 5.1 Richter job on Friday and a 4.4 quake that shook Honda on Saturday.
Call this game, then, a series of aftershocks.
The word “unwatchable” has been thrown around like a Frisbee this season in college basketball. This wasn't unwatchable, despite 39 percent shooting, 32 fouls and exactly no fast break points. It may have been a closed-fist deposition for modern college basketball was anything but unwatchable.
That's because Wisconsin and Arizona refused to stop playing. Hard and clean. The teams played the last 17 minutes never separated by more than one possession (three points). They weren't going to let it end with an Arizona star (Aaron Gordon) almost shooting his team out of the game for the second consecutive game. Johnson started 0 for 10 against San Diego State on Thursday. Gordon started 1 for 9 but almost won it scoring his team's first five points of overtime.
The Badgers wouldn't stop playing for Ryan. Saturday would have been his dad Butch's 90th birthday. Butch died last August and by all accounts was as tough and irascible as his son.
Bo brought that attitude to Madison 13 years ago. He's never specialized in five-stars, certainly not one-and-dones. But after arriving in 2001, Wisconsin has finished in the top four of the Big Ten each season.
Without those stars, Ryan played a precise, conservative style. This, is turned out, was one of this most athletic teams. Hey, if Frank the Tank can get loose, anything can happen.
“We have a stigma about Wisconsin as a type of program ... that there's only one way we play,” Jackson said. “I think this year we've broken a lot of barriers. We've won in so many different ways.”
It doesn't matter now. Sure, the whistles may have gone their way but Bo continues to coach his way.
And this time, they're in.