Thank you, seniors!

Tonight the No. 4-seeded University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team takes on No.1-seeded Syracuse University in a Sweet 16 NCAA tournament game. If the Badgers pull the upset, they move on to face the winner of tonight’s Cincinnati-Ohio State matchup in the Elite Eight round. If Bucky falls to the Orangemen, it will bring an end to both the season and the careers of seniors Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson.

As I wrote last month, one of the biggest reasons I like coach Bo Ryan and his system is his ability and willingness to take a chance on lesser-known recruits and develop their careers over the course of four (sometimes five) years. This year’s senior class is another great example of this basketball and personal development.

Jordan Taylor came to Madison after being named the 2008 Minnesota Mr. Basketball. He was recruited by a number of schools, but wasn’t considered “elite” because of his height (listed at 6-foot-1) and lack of a consistent jump shot. What he could do is handle the ball and make good decisions on the court, which are essential qualities for a point guard playing in Ryan’s program.

Jordan saw a decent number of minutes as a freshman and became one of the first players off the bench and made some big shots as a sophomore. He really blossomed during his junior year, helping lead the Badgers to the Sweet 16. This development led to sky-high expectations for his senior year, a season that some pundits have used to say Taylor peaked during his junior year.

None of this seems to faze Jordan, who goes about his business with a smile on his face, but has looked increasingly focused over the past 10 games or so. Part of his contribution this year has been to involve his teammates – most of whom didn’t play many minutes in past seasons – and show them how to play at a high level in the Big 10 conference. Several guys have come up big for the Badgers at various points this season, but it is most evident in the recent play of Taylor’s fellow senior, Rob Wilson.

Buried on the bench, injured or in Ryan’s doghouse for most of his first three-and-a-half seasons in Madison, Wilson seemingly was the forgotten man as the Badgers made their way through the nonconference season. I’m not sure exactly what happened to trigger the change – perhaps he heard the proverbial clock ticking, something just “clicked” or he started to receive some positive attention for his off-the-court work – but beginning halfway through the conference slate, Wilson gained Ryan’s trust and began to see more minutes.

His play brings a certain dimension – athleticism, slashing to the hoop, etc. – that really adds something to the Badger offense. His “signature moment” came out of nowhere to put up 30 points against Indiana in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals. He has become the first guard/forward off the bench, and you can almost see his confidence soar with every basket he make or charge he takes.

And that’s the best part of Rob’s story – by all accounts he is an outstanding young man. Never once did he publicly complain about lack of playing time or threaten to transfer. He came to work every day, and was ready to play when Ryan called his number. You can tell the respect all the players and staff have for Wilson, evidenced in their joyous hugs and high-fives after big wins.

I have seen a lot of great players put on the UW jersey during Bo Ryan’s tenure, but I believe I am most proud of Rob Wilson. Not because he will be the first in his family to graduate from college. Not because Cosmopolitan magazine named him one of March’s hottest men, but because of the way he has handled himself over the past four years.

And, if you need any more proof of how Bo feels about these guys and how they feel about him, check out this video, especially the 25- to 35-second mark. Then notice the look at the expressions on Wilson and Taylor’s faces.

Thank you, seniors, no matter what happens tonight. On Wisconsin!