Wisconsin trying to find a place among elite

INDIANAPOLIS -- They didn't mean it to be controversial or disrespectful, even though it may have come off that way.

Two years ago, after the Wisconsin Badgers lost to the Mississippi Rebels in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, then-freshman Sam Dekker and then-sophomore Traevon Jackson said publicly that they wanted to change the culture of the Badgers' program.

The immediate response: What exactly is wrong with the culture, fellas? At that point, after all, the Badgers had made it to the NCAA tournament 14 consecutive times, appeared in one Final Four, two regional finals and six Sweet 16s, won three Big Ten regular-season crowns and two more conference tourney titles.

It wasn't exactly like Wisconsin was some also-ran.

In retrospect, Dekker admits, maybe they chose the wrong words. It's not that they didn't like what they had; they just wanted more.

"We didn't want to just say we'd been to an NCAA tournament as a staple,'' he explained. "The people before us, they set a precedent for us. They won so many games, but also at the same time, we wanted to win a national championship. We didn't want to settle for anything less, to be OK with being good enough.''

What they wanted, really, was to be Duke, to be Kentucky, to be Kansas or North Carolina, programs known not simply for sustained decent play, but for continued excellence.

Such eagerness was appreciated. Who doesn't dream of being one of those elite teams?

But their naïveté also was given a little dose of reality.

"It's easy to talk about and say you want to set a bar,'' senior Ben Brust warned, relaying his message in the Wisconsin State Journal in 2013. "But until you do it, it doesn't matter.''

Wisconsin is pretty close to doing it.

One national championship doesn't immediately change everything. The NCAA record books are scattered with its share of one-and-done title winners.

But this team won't be an accidental national champion, beneficiaries of a broken bracket or magicians who caught March magic in a bottle. These Badgers would have gone through a gauntlet of the sport's royalty to cut down the nets -- from North Carolina to Arizona to formerly undefeated (and presumably unbeatable) Kentucky to Duke, name-brand programs, the first three of which also happened to be the highest 4-, 2- and 1-seeds in this particular NCAA tournament.

They would have won a championship after winning the Big Ten tournament, after earning a No. 1 seed, after winning 36 games and returning to a second consecutive Final Four.

They would be an elite team that won it all.

"We have an opportunity to make history in Wisconsin,'' Jackson said.

Maybe perception would have been a more accurate word than culture. That's really what the Badgers were fighting, because the numbers were there, but the image wasn't. Instead the Badgers were some kind of little engine that could, or better, a gimmick program. Their style of play, for so long grinding, plodding and slow, made them seem somehow not real, like the success somehow came with smoke and mirrors but was never going to be good enough to make a real dent in the college basketball world.

Wisconsin simply wasn't built to succeed in today's model.

Even within its own conference, Wisconsin was never quite the face of the Big Ten. That was either Michigan State, Ohio State or even, lately, Michigan.

"I don't know what the perception of us is. It doesn't really matter to me,'' Dekker said. "I think we're a good team. I think we've done a lot of good things, but at the same time, we're not satisfied. The perception of ourselves is what's most important.''

And now they are all where Dekker and Jackson were two years ago, not just hoping to win but expecting it; not just happy to be in Indianapolis, but determined to own it.

They believe they belong in the conversation, alongside the Kentucky team they already beat and the Duke team they intend to beat on Monday night.

They also know they remain in the minority.

That's why, when it came time to choose the logo for their pregame T-shirts, they settled on a simple one: Make Them Believe.

They knew the doubters were still out there, not so much questioning whether Wisconsin was a good team, but wondering whether there was a ceiling as to how good -- the people who still wanted them to be satisfied with good enough.

That's not who they are anymore.

After the Badgers knocked off Kentucky, more than one reporter congratulated a player in the locker room. More than one player responded with a sharp reminder that they hadn't won anything yet.

Maybe knocking off the Wildcats, doing what was deemed improbable, would have seemed impossible even to the Badgers. No more.

On Saturday night, the Badgers danced briefly on the court before adjourning to a rather quiet locker room -- a few high fives, a quick speech from Ryan, the end.

"No one got a Gatorade bath,'' assistant coach Greg Gard said.

It's not even about winning a national championship. That's the goal, of course, but it's what the title would represent that this team is chasing, a prize bigger than just the immediate reward.

"We wanted to change the culture, and right now we're changing it,'' Jackson said. "We're here. We're doing it.''