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March 3, 2012

One last time at the Kohl for 11

MADISON -- Do you remember when you first saw Jordan Taylor play?

Perhaps it was during his high school years, when Taylor was named Minnesota's Mr. Basketball as a senior after leading the Benilde-St. Margaret's Red Knights to the Class AAA state title, averaging 22.3 points and 7.1 assists per game along the way.

Perhaps it Taylor's freshman season, when the 6-foot-1 guard played in every game for Wisconsin, showing glimpses of what was to come. If so, you may have been introduced to the Bloomington, Minn., native on Jan. 21, 2009, when he drained his first career 3-pointer, a 24-footer to send the game into overtime at Iowa.

Perhaps your first look at Taylor came during his sophomore year, when he led the Big Ten and ranked third in the nation with a 3.03 assist-to-turnover ratio, turning it over just 39 times in 33 games. Then you might remember Taylor's 23-point performance in a 73-66 UW victory over then-No. 4 Purdue.

Boilermakers head coach Matt Painter put it best afterwards: "Taylor was the difference in the game."

Taylor has been the difference in a lot of games over his career. You may have noticed that, even if you did not see him play until last year, when Taylor was named a first-team All-American by FOX Sports, and received second team honors from many other publications.

Perhaps the first you saw of Taylor was his 39-point game at Indiana exactly one year ago, on March 3, 2011. If that's the case, you missed one of Taylor's best career performances, when he scored 27 points on Feb. 12, 2011, in an upset of the previously unbeaten and top-ranked Buckeyes.

Said Taylor after that thriller: "Just to be in another court rusher game like that, similar to Duke last year, it was unbelievable. It's something you remember forever."

And finally, perhaps you had never seen Taylor play until this year. If so, you were introduced to Taylor during the toughest stretch of his career.

With big men Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil having moved on, Taylor has been forced into a much bigger role this season. He's also been tasked with the job of assimilating guys like Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz into full-time starting roles.

All while leading the Badgers to their 12th consecutive first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament and keeping alive the streak of never having finished lower than fourth place in the conference with Bo Ryan as head coach.

If that's the Jordan Taylor you were introduced to, you may have missed out on many of his best statistical performances. But you've seen Taylor's leadership at its best.

"He's brought along this front line as well as anybody that I could've had out there," Ryan said. "He's helped [turn] three reserve players from last year who didn't get a lot of time last year into guys who are competing at the highest level.

"Not every point guard in America can do that. But Jordan can. His shooting percentage is down a little bit, but not his leadership."

Six years later, Greg Gard still remembers the first time he saw Taylor play.

"I think it was as a sophomore in high school," Gard said. "He was smart, he was strong, he was heady. You could tell that he had a presence about him.

"It's hard to believe it's coming to an end. It seems like just yesterday that I [first] saw him play."

Gard was the primary recruiter on Taylor, as well as fellow senior Rob Wilson. Both of them will be playing their final home game Sunday at Wisconsin.

For Gard, the thought of the last time he'll see Taylor and Wilson suit it up for a game at the Kohl Center brings a lot of emotions. Emotions that Gard did not expect to have to deal with until Sunday.

The question posed Friday afternoon was a simple one, 'Are senior days easy for you?' Likewise, the answer of 'No' was simple as well. But that exchange brought out the emotion of the situation for Gard.

'Will this one be especially difficult for him?'

"Yep, this one will be," Gard answered, fighting back tears.

'Why so?'

"Two special kids," Gard said. "I'm just happy for both of them, because they've both come in and done everything we've asked. That's what I'm most proud of. What they'll walk out of here as people, and as young men and with their degrees. And obviously have made this program better in their four years."

Senior days are an annual event in every high school and collegiate sport. But every once in a while, there is a player or players that make such a day that much more special.

Taylor, for what he's done on and off the court, both personally and as a leader for the Badgers, is one of those players. It would be hard to argue otherwise when looking at his collegiate resume.

After passing Devin Harris in the last game, Taylor is ninth on UW's all-time scoring list with 1,438 points entering Sunday. He was an All-American last year, and a preseason first-team All-American this season.

Taylor's 3.12 career assist-to-turnover ratio is on pace to shatter the NCAA record of 2.70, set by UTEP's Julyan Stone from 2008-11. Taylor was named a Bob Cousy award finalist this season for the second year in a row, and was named this week as one of 30 players on the Naismith Trophy Midseason list.

In addition to all that, Taylor is a two-time Big Ten player of the week, and was named to the All-Big Ten first team a year ago, as well as the All-Big Ten defensive team. He's a lock to earn another All-Big Ten honor this year as well.

With all of that, you might ask what would be Taylor's greatest Wisconsin memory?

"Just the fans, and playing at the Kohl Center," Taylor said, humble as usual. "It's an unbelievable place, an unbelievable venue to play basketball. And I'm lucky to have played there for four years."


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