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April 4, 2014

Dealing with Texas-sized distractions





ARLINGTON, Texas - It's not everyday you get to play basketball in a football stadium. It's not everyday that you get to play basketball in a football stadium that holds up to 105,000 paying customers.

But this isn't everyday. This is the Final Four.

AT&T Stadium - formerly "Jerry's World" and "Cowboy Stadium" - has the world's largest column-free interior and has hosted events ranging from Super Bowls to soccer games to motocross races. Now, it will host its first Final Four.

"It's hard to describe," Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Close said of the venue. "You see it on television and you watch football games. To be not just in it, but in it, it's hard to describe. I'm not sure there's a stadium like it anywhere else."

A stadium that's 3.1 million square feet in size - nearly seven times larger than the Kohl Center and its 450,000 square feet - obviously comes with a great deal of extra amenities, plenty of luxurious seating and enough room for a 60-yard high definition video screen. But it also comes with its drawbacks, especially as a basketball venue.

"It kind of feels like you're outside to a point," Frank Kaminsky said. "When you're looking through the backboard it seems like everything's so far away. It's an insane venue. I think it's too big, honestly."

Out of all of the challenges the Wisconsin Badgers will be faced with when they play against the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night, dealing with the atmosphere may pose as the most difficult to overcome.

For this reason, the NCAA flew in UConn, Florida, Kentucky and Wisconsin to North Texas on Wednesday. In order to get the best out of each team, the players and coaches must familiarize themselves with the elevated court, the unique backdrop behind the baskets, and the unusual lighting as a result of a video screen that is double the length of the court hanging up above.

Once the teams become accustomed to the environment on the court, dealing with the increased distractions of more media sessions, police escorts and free gifts turn into the main focus.

"You can't explain it or describe it until you actually go through it," Close said of the distractions off the court during the Final Four. "That's why I think it's good to come down a few days early so you can get yourself accustomed to it. Until you actually do it, it's a totally different dynamic."

The biggest crowd Wisconsin played in front of this season was a sold-out Kohl Center crowd of 18,626 against Michigan State. Of the Badgers' 37 games this season, 24 have been in front of a crowd larger than 15,000.

The biggest crowd Kentucky played in front of this season was their Elite 8 matchup against Michigan that 41,072 people attended. Of the Wildcats' 38 games this season, 24 have been in front of a crowd larger than 20,000 and 17 of those were with crowds larger than 22,000.

Nigel Hayes called the Badgers' shootaround on Thursday one of the worst shooting performances he's seen out of the team all season, saying that it was, "absolutely horrendous." Hayes also said the court felt a little bit bigger than most.

"We spent our first ten minutes out on the court just looking around and staring at how big the place was," Hayes said. "We got to look at the court - it seems at least 10 feet longer - but we'll go out there and get adjusted to it as quickly as we can."

On the eve of their first Final Four game since 2000, the Badgers are doing their best to wash out the distractions the best they can. Ignoring the outside voices and distractions is what they did when they were 16-0 and on top of the world; it's what they did when they dropped five of six and that same world was crashing down on them; and it's what they did when they were on the verge of getting to the Final Four.

Now that they're here, why should things be any different?

"A big part of the game is how you can focus on just the game itself and kind of let the other stuff go," Josh Gasser said. "Enjoy it and have fun with it, but know that you are here for a reason. That is what we are going to try and do."

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow Zack on Twitter.


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