Pitcher Perfect

Pitcher Perfect

Being honored by the Milwaukee Brewers for their Final Four run, Wisconsin Badgers basketball players, coaches and staff were treated to a dream experience that left the players awestruck.

MILWAUKEE - Too often during their careers by their own admission, members of the Wisconsin men's basketball team are met by overzealous fans who shriek, scream and ask giddily for photographs.

On Friday evening, the roles were reversed as it was the Badgers who resembled a group of middle-school girls.

Every Badgers player, with the exception of Jordan Hill, along with all three assistant coaches and a handful of managers were given VIP treatment by the Milwaukee Brewers before their series opener against the New York Yankees. The group watched batting practice, got a tour of the Brewers home clubhouse and took part in a future taping of a "Wang-Chung Wednesday" viral video.

The cherry on top was a scoreboard tribute that featured memorable moments from Wisconsin's tournament run and the entire team, along with Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, throwing out a ceremonial first pitch with the UW marching band playing the school fight song.

As the players said, they were like kids in a candy store.

"I felt like a little kid again," said junior Sam Dekker, aptly wearing a Brewers hat. "I'm a big Brewers fan, big baseball fan, period. To get a chance to do this with these guys, just be around all these great athletes is a really great experience for me."

Despite being in the final weeks of spring training and trying to put the finishing touches on a roster that ended the month of April with the best record in baseball, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin was able to sneak snippets of Wisconsin games and marvel at the way Ryan and his staff were able to develop a young group's chemistry so quickly and effectively.

"In our business of baseball, it's exciting to see the energy with young talent and that's what you saw with that group of young guys pulling together this year," said Melvin. "I admire Bo Ryan. A lot of college coaches move on and go other places, but Bo is loyal to the school and to the state. I don't know if it goes unnoticed, but I notice it. He does a great job with these kids."

In the month since losing to Kentucky in the national semifinals, Ryan said he spent a couple days in Palm Springs playing golf, but otherwise has been bogged down with speaking engagements, recruiting and honoring a variety of requests that come with making the program's first Final Four run in 14 years.

"Pretty soon a lot of those people forget (we were in the Final Four)," said Ryan. "By September, people ask, ‘Name the four teams in the Final Four?' It'll go from maybe 80 percent of the country knowing to 40 percent. I am just hoping the 40 percent are the recruits we are talking to."

That's why Ryan – a die-hard Philadelphia Phillies fans – was in on the fun, too, spending time talking to MLB executive Joe Torre (the player who was on the baseball cards Ryan had to have growing up), Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter (a one-time shooting guard) and Brewers manager Ron Roenicke (a one-time point guard).

Ryan played shortstop growing up, coached baseball for one year in college and said he would have taken the Wisconsin baseball head coaching job if then-athletic director Elroy Hirsch offered it to him.

"There is so much in baseball for a manager to cover," said Ryan. "You have position coaches and all that, but I think coaching baseball in junior high and one year in college has helped me. Playing baseball has definitely helped me to coach basketball because you go from nine guys at one time on the field to five guys that have to do everything correctly.

"Managing baseball with all the things that are involved, it's very intricate. That's why I always liked baseball."

It's been more than a month since Wisconsin's season ended in North Texas, a 74-73 loss to national runner-up Kentucky, but the pain hasn't subsided for Josh Gasser and company. One of the emotional players in the postgame locker room, all Gasser wanted to do back in Madison was get back in the gym and start working on getting back to the tournament's final weekend.

On paper Wisconsin (30-8 in 2013-14) should have as good of chance as any to achieve that. Including Gasser, Wisconsin returns four starters, including leading scorer Frank Kaminsky (13.9 ppg) and two others who averaged double figures in scoring.

Take out the production of seniors Evan Anderson, Zach Bohannon and Ben Brust and the two games George Marshall played before transferring, Wisconsin returns 81.8 percent of its scoring, 85.9 percent of its rebounding and 88.9 percent of its assists.

"We're focused in on what's next," said Gasser. "Next season we have a great opportunity, so that's what we're looking at."

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