When the NCAA Tournament kicks off for real on Thursday, Wisconsin will be among the favorites to win it. The Badgers, who went to the Final Four last year, stormed through the Big Ten regular season and then the conference tournament on their way to earning the top seed in West regional.
Wisconsin’s balanced approach — it has the nation’s most efficient offense and its 11th-best defense, according to KenPom.com — and a national player of the year candidate in 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, there’s no reason to think the Badgers can’t return to the Final Four and maybe even lift the program’s first national championship trophy since 1941.
But the Badgers are interesting for another reason too: in a state that has long been a hotbed for political activism and where athletes often participate in it, Wisconsin’s roster features players who have weighed in on two of the biggest debates in sports.
Point guard Bronson Koenig, who emerged as a starter after Traevon Jackson suffered an injury earlier in the season, made headlines in February not just for his stellar play but for calling out Washington’s NFL team for using “Redskins” as its nickname. Koenig is Native American — he’s a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation — and the debate over using Native imagery and names as sports mascots has been a hot topic in Wisconsin in recent years. But he reserves special distaste for Washington’s name, telling the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he is “disappointed” that the name is still used, and that he feels like it makes “people think it’s OK to make fun of us.” Koenig, according to the Journal Sentinel, has embraced his Native American roots, which make him somewhat unique among prominent college athletes, and during a visit to Nebraska earlier this season took time to speak to children on a local reservation.
Then there is Nigel Hayes, the Badgers’ starting forward, who has emerged as a three-point threat and given Wisconsin another dangerous weapon on the offensive end. But Hayes is also doing more than just playing ball: in October, he added his name to an antitrust lawsuit brought by Clemson football player Martin Jenkins against the NCAA. The suit goes even farther than the more-prominent Ed O’Bannon case against the NCAA in that it seeks to end the cap on scholarship amounts in a way that could create a free market for college athletes, allowing them to earn broader compensation for their role as athletes.
That puts Hayes among the rare class of players who have directly challenged the NCAA in court while they are still playing, and while he hasn’t spoken to the media about it, Wisconsin has.
“The department fully supports Nigel as a student, student-athlete and team member,” the university’s athletic department said in a statement when Hayes added his name to the suit. “In a free society, people can reasonably disagree about any issue, express their views and seek to vindicate them through the legal process.”
With an assist from the O’Bannon case, which coincidentally is back in court this week, the lawsuit Hayes put his name to could radically reshift the college sports landscape in a way that gives athletes more rights within the system.
Wisconsin opens the NCAA Tournament as an overwhelming favorite against 16th-seeded Coastal Carolina on Friday. The Badgers will be one of the tournament’s most intriguing teams on the court over the next three weeks; thanks to Koenig and Hayes, they’re one of the most interesting teams in the field off the court too.
Aside from Hayes and Koenig, the NCAA Tournament features a number of fun storylines. Here’s a brief look at some under-the-radar players, coaches, and even a mathematician who will have an effect on the tournament’s outcome:
Kevin Ware, Georgia State: Ware, recently crowned MVP of the Sun Belt tournament, is best known for a nasty leg injury suffered in the NCAA Tournament for Louisville two seasons ago. After a brief return for the Cardinals and another injury, Ware transferred to Georgia State, where he’s averaged 7.7 points in his first season. Now he’ll return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the injury, and though he wanted to face his old Louisville team, the 14-seed Panthers take on Baylor in the first round. Ware isn’t the only interesting story on Georgia State’s roster: point guard and second-leading scorer Ryan Harrow transferred from Kentucky after a tumultuous season there. And head coach Ron Hunter, who might have torn his achilles celebrating the Panthers’ win in the Sun Belt final, coaches barefoot one game each year to benefit a charity that provides shoes to underprivileged children around the world.
Peter Hooley, Albany: Hooley might already have the tournament’s sentimental favorite title locked up. The Albany guard hit an improbable buzzer-beating three pointer in the conference final to beat Stony Brook and bring the Great Danes to the tournament for the third consecutive season. Incredibly, he did it to cap off a season in which he had missed eight games while back in his native Australia, where his mother died from colon cancer in January. As Hooley knocked down the game-winning three, his sister was live-tweeting. She might go even crazier if Hooley and the Great Danes can upset Oklahoma in the first round.
Ron Baker, Wichita State: Baker came to Wichita State as an unheralded recruit without a scholarship. But over his career, he’s helped the Shockers to a Final Four berth, an undefeated regular season in 2014, and another NCAA Tournament trip this season. Not only is he on scholarship, he’s now part of a potent backcourt trio and a potential NBA Draft pick. And the native Kansan who’s never gotten to play against the state’s blue-blood program — the University of Kansas — could get that shot this weekend if both the Shockers and Jayhawks win in the first round. Baker’s head coach Gregg Marshall, meanwhile, has already qualified for another Final Four: in the Coaches Charity Challenge, where he’s representing a Wichita-area children’s home.
Marcus Lee, Kentucky: Lee isn’t among Kentucky’s most notable on-court presences — he averages 12 minutes and 3 points a game — but the eccentric power forward who emerged improbably to help the Wildcats to the tournament final a year ago is one of its most intriguing. As the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Kyle Tucker reported last week, Lee has gained a reputation around Lexington for random acts of kindness for people in need — a high schooler suffering from depression, a boy with leukemia — that his coaches only found out about when emails began pouring in from people Lee had helped. And while Lee is a projected first-round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, his dream job is far different: he wants to be an ad manager for Apple.
Edward Joyner Jr., Hampton: Entering the tournament, KenPom.com ranked Hampton as the worst team in the entire field. But Hampton, here thanks to their MEAC tournament championship, won a play-in game over Manhattan on Tuesday, giving the Pirates a Thursday night match-up with top overall seed Kentucky. That won’t be an easy task — Kentucky is undefeated — and so at his post-game press conference Monday night, Joyner, the team’s sixth-year head coach, dialed up Jesus to ask for help. Jesus apparently hung up, and Hampton’s stay in the tournament will likely be over soon. But you can’t say Joyner and Co. aren’t at least having plenty of fun while they are here.
Kris Dunn, Providence: Dunn was one of the top-ranked point guard recruits in the class of 2012, but two shoulder injuries limited his playing time over the first two seasons. Now, though, Dunn might be the team’s most important player and one of the nation’s best guards: he ranks second in scoring and rebounding and leads the team in assists (7.6) and steals (2.8) per game, good enough to make him the co-Big East player of the year. No player in the tournament averages more assists, and Dunn’s breakout season and co-star LaDontae Hinton could be enough to make the Friars, a six-seed, a potential bracket-buster in the East regional.
Tim Chartier, Davidson: Chartier isn’t a player on Davidson’s roster; nor is he a coach on its bench. Instead, he’s a mathematics professor at the small university in North Carolina. But as the New York Times detailed this week, Chartier and his math students may be integral to Davidson’s success. Chartier approached Wildcats head coach Bob McKillop with the idea of using his students and math to track the efficiency of each one of the team’s five-man lineups. It’s hardly a revolutionary approach — NBA and college teams alike use analytics to their advantage — but McKillop credits the work of Cartier and his students with helping keep the school best known for a deep run in the 2010 NCAA Tournament on the back of NBA sharpshooter Steph Curry relevant in a bigger conference and without another big star. Davidson is in the field for the third time in four years, and against 7th-seed Iowa, it will have a chance to win its first tournament game since the Curry-fueled run to the regional final in 2008.