INDIANAPOLIS -- They were destined to collide. The basketball gods handed Saturday night's gift down from on high. The whole idea was too essential to go unrealized. Wisconsin's story had to end this way: To return to the Final Four. To exorcise those Big Blue demons. To go blow-for-staggering-blow with 38-0. To write a cheesy final act to a sports movie that began 12 short months ago.
That was the idea, anyway, and why not? The stakes, the teams, the players -- how could a formulation so perfect come to exist without the invisible nudge of fate?
And then it was real. Then the collision came. Then, after 40 electrifying minutes of live-and-die-with-every-bucket basketball, and after Wisconsin finally prevailed -- when it turned 38-0 to 38-1 and stopped history in its tracks -- the Badgers proved how wrong we were all along.
Saturday wasn't an ending. Saturday culminated nothing. Saturday wasn't even a goal. Saturday's 71-64 win over the previously unbeaten Wildcats was, truly, just one more game -- another necessary, unavoidable step toward the real ending, the actual finish, the one thing Wisconsin wants more than any other: a national title. Nothing less.
Saturday? Just a coincidence.
Ask Nigel Hayes, who played seven forgettable minutes in 2014's national semifinal. Surely, he wanted a chance to show how far he's come.
"It was not the mindset to try and end their streak," =Hayes said. "[It was] the fact that we wanted to win a national championship, and they were the team we had to play."
Ask Frank Kaminsky, who saw his junior season end with one of the worst performances of his season. On Saturday, he took on a far bigger, far deeper, far more devastating UK front line. This time, he was not an emerging star but the overwhelming choice for national player of the year. This time, he emerged with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Surely, he was thinking of last season's letdown when he prepared for this game. Surely, the thought at least crept into his mind.
"It's great that we had a chance to play a good team along the way and come out on top," Kaminsky said.
Ask Sam Dekker, the last player to leave the AT&T Stadium court a year ago, the lone Badger left crouching on the court as Kentucky hugged and scrummed, the only one punishing himself with the visual.
"Last year's game was motivation -- not because of Kentucky," Dekker said. "Because of how far we got."
Ask Josh Gasser, fifth-year senior, mobbed by microphones at his locker. Come on, man: How great must you feel right now?
"Feeling real good -- but, you know, we're ready for the next game," Gasser said. "I'm just ready to get out of here, get to bed, and then ready tomorrow to get back to work, because we've got a big one coming up."
See? While the rest of the world -- guilty as charged -- greeted Saturday's matchup as a glorious, narrative-culmination storyline, the Badgers saw it as little more than a roadblock. Oh, sure, Wisconsin didn't mind the chance to correct the record against Kentucky, even if that meant playing an unbeaten team wielding the best, most dominant defense in recent memory. But they wouldn't have been bothered if Notre Dame had finished the job last weekend or if some random, double-digit seed pulled a VCU on the entire Midwest region. It wouldn't have mattered. Everybody else was only one more team in the way.
Call it the confidence of greatness. It was not unfair to ask, as we all did for months, whether anyone really could beat Kentucky. The Wildcats were undefeated, incomprehensibly talented and deserving of their place at the center of the 2014-15 season's orbit. They really were great.
Well, so is Wisconsin. In its own right, on its own terms, the Badgers are special.
Kentucky's defense might have been the best of the past decade, if not longer. Well, so was Wisconsin's offense. The Badgers entered Saturday night averaging the highest adjusted points per possession in the history of the KenPom.com database (which dates to 2002). On Saturday night, they shot 51.6 percent from 2, 41.2 percent from 3, grabbed 43 percent of available offensive rebounds and sent that unprecedented UK defense team home with 1.22 points per trip.
Kentucky was devastating in the closing minutes of games. Well, so was Wisconsin. In the 42 minutes of its season in which the score was within five points with five minutes left in regulation or overtime, Kentucky outscored its opponents by a combined 35 points. Wisconsin? After Saturday, the Badgers have played 52 clutch-time minutes. They've averaged 1.52 points per possession, allowed .78, and outscored opponents by 52.
If you're that team, why wouldn't you be confident? Or, put another way, why would you view a national semifinal -- no matter how good, or how fitting, the opponent -- as anything more than an interval?
Earlier this week, Dekker told reporters the Badgers weren't thinking too much about Kentucky's size or strength, about the differences between UK and every other team it would play. How would Bo Ryan's team adjust? The answer was that, for the most part, it wouldn't. Instead, Wisconsin would do its own thing -- "attack this game like we've attacked every other game, not make it bigger than what it is," Dekker said.
"Usually, if we do our things well, we do all right," he said.
On Saturday, while Dekker & Co. were busy reiterating this ethos, Wisconsin fans were busy mobbing their downtown Indianapolis hotel headquarters, crushed into the lobby, waiting for the Badgers to arrive. Not too long before, Dekker had been working the crowd on the Lucas Oil Stadium floor, pointing and waving and soaking up a moment and everything it meant.
That's the question, isn't it? What did it mean? Had Wisconsin won the showpiece sent down from the hoops deities? Did the Badgers fulfill their narrative destiny? Did their win define them as the team that, in stopping history, became part of history itself?
Was Saturday night the coda of a tale that deserved a great ending and got one -- a game that existed in so many minds for so long that we all created it by some mysterious force of will?
No. It was the win Wisconsin needed to get to Monday night. One more game. One more team. One more step toward the only goal that means anything to Dekker and his teammates: a national title.
"It didn't matter who was in front of us," Dekker said.
Kentucky? What a coincidence.