IT IS SURREAL, to be on the outside looking in at this time of year. Watching the greatest event in all of college sports from my couch, with three TVs set up in my living room in Charlotte, I haven't felt like leaving my apartment much. Since the NCAA tournament began, I'm finding myself cheering for teams I'd never imagined I'd root for: I was pulling for Yale, going nuts when Stephen F. Austin upset West Virginia and was speechless when Middle Tennessee State shocked Michigan State and busted everyone's bracket (though not mine—I have North Carolina winning it all). I guess I'm a sucker for underdogs, just like everyone else.
Watching these games, I can't help but be transported back to the greatest experience of my life. It's funny, when it comes to the tournament, you end up remembering the little things: the nights in the hotel rooms, going go-karting in Omaha, seeing all these cities across the country. We had back-to-back Final Four runs my last two years at Wisconsin, and it's still hard to find the right words to describe my experience because of the overwhelming range of emotions I felt. The sweetest moment of my basketball career was getting to the Final Four in 2014, my junior year, something no one saw coming. But no matter how awesome I make the Final Four sound, to be honest, when I look back on it, I mostly have a sour taste in my mouth because we never won that championship. Maybe that will change over time, but I still feel the sting of our loss to Duke in last year's championship game.
I also remember that the whole experience was downright chaotic. You walk into an NFL arena that has 80,000 seats and a basketball court thrown in the middle of it. I'll never forget all the media and walking into these movie-type sets, with all the cameras and lighting, doing commercials and stuff for the video board, things you don't plan on. Then there are banquets and fan interaction events, and somehow you have to try to focus on basketball. It's almost an afterthought.
When you make the Final Four, it's like you're in a fraternity, an elite club. And it is special to be part of such a rich history and tradition. So many people's names were made in the NCAA tournament. Steph Curry—I never watched a single Davidson game until he made all those shots for two years in the tournament. I had no idea who Gordon Hayward was until Butler made its run to the national title game in 2010.
The tournament is not perfect. There are always some things the NCAA messes up. The 11th seed play-in game, for starters, is really stupid and needs to be gotten rid of. It's a slap in the face to teams who deserve to be in the tournament. And I agree with the criticism of the way tournament games are officiated. There are too many fouls. I would love to see a more physical game and not see all these touchy fouls, especially on the national stage.
It's also fun to be on the outside looking in. On my Hornets team we have a pool that one of my teammates set up, and of course Marvin Williams and Tyler Hansbrough are picking North Carolina to win it all. For the record, I had Wisconsin getting to the Elite Eight, but they still did me proud. After the Badgers beat Xavier, I FaceTimed my old roommate Jordan Smith. I talked to everyone, checked in on the team as the guys were getting onto the bus going back to the hotel. I wanted to stay connected any way I can. As much of a blast as I've had watching on TV, nothing compares to actually being there.
I always tell people, the hardest moment of my career wasn't walking off the court after coming up short in the national title game. The hardest moment was getting back to campus and realizing that I was done in Wisconsin. Two days after the Final Four last year, I left school to start training for the draft. It just all happened so fast. I was there, I was a basketball player and having the time of my life, and suddenly I was gone, moving on to the next chapter of my life.
What the former Wisconsin star, now a rookie with the Hornets, misses about playing in the Final Four and what he would change about the Big Dance.
Which team will be crowned champion on April 4?
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