The evidence is there. Digitally, at least. Wisconsin's march to the Final Four is captured on my DVR, saved for posterity like I'm sure it is for hundreds of Badger fans. I don't have to let go until I'm ready.
Technology affords us a virtual trophy case for statement games against Oregon, Baylor and Arizona. Not to ignore the 2013-14 team's 27 other wins this past season, but those three tournament victories brought Wisconsin's program to new heights. No more monkey on head coach Bo Ryan's back. No more talking wistfully about Dick Bennett's unlikely giant-slayers of 2000. For better or worse, those memories will fade now.
The state of Wisconsin has reveled in the steady and unprecedented success of the Bo Ryan era, knowing the Badgers had arrived as a national power. The rest of the Big Ten had seen it, too. But now, thanks to Wisconsin's surge in March, the rest of the nation knows it. The Badgers are no flash in the pan from the turn of the millennium.
That sentiment only intensifies when people discuss how well-equipped next year's team is to make a repeat run. Losing only one player from his regular rotation, Ryan will boast multiple NBA-caliber talents in their prime for the first time in the form of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Young talent is also readily available, in rising sophomores Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig.
Early, early 2014-15 polls favorable to UW
Also, this year's final USA TODAY coaches poll has the Badgers at No. 4.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Big Ten is seeing its top-flight talent depart early. Michigan is losing Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and possibly Mitch McGary to the NBA, plus Jon Horford is transferring unexpectedly. Michigan State graduates two vital seniors and says goodbye to sophomore Gary Harris ... will Branden Dawson be next? (Edit: Nope.) LaQuinton Ross is leaving Ohio State, which already lost Aaron Craft among others. Prized freshman Noah Vonleh departed from Indiana, just ahead of slightly more surprising transfer announcements.
Several programs in the conference welcome talented freshmen and transfers of their own, but experience and chemistry trumps talent many times.
You want toughness and experience? How about Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson, both of whom will be back for one last hurrah in Madison. The Badgers look like early favorites to take the Big Ten crown next season.
Unfortunately, I just cannot get over something Dekker mentioned to the media after the Final Four.
"What is the loneliest number in the world?"
That's the question Dekker says Ryan posed to his players that weekend.
The only NCAA championship banner to ever hang in the Kohl Center for basketball was from UW's title-winning team of 1941. Hanging another banner for the 2014 team -- technically impossible thanks to the abomination known as "recognition on a concrete ring" -- would have been perfect. The symmetry between '41 and '14 could have been beautiful.
Alas, that ship has sailed for another year, maybe longer. That's the point. We don't know how long we'll wait for another shot.
Along with the revelry, uncertainty is what keeps those tournament games on lockdown on the DVR. Perhaps that is why, when the time comes, the hardest footage to delete will be the heartbreaking loss to Kentucky on April 5. It represents a snapshot of Wisconsin as close as it's come to tasting the ultimate prize in over 70 years. And really, how can you compare the prestige of a modern NCAA championship to one from an era where the NIT was often the more glamorous postseason event?
Ben Brust will be harder to replace than people think. Not only was he a phenomenal shooter and underrated athlete with a great motor, but a good guy who didn't take himself too seriously. Do not underestimate the effect a likable senior leader would have had on Wisconsin's renowned team chemistry this year.
Chemistry, health and luck are unpredictable intangibles that come into play every season for every team. It is far from a foregone conclusion that the Badgers will be back in the spotlight next April. I think most people realize this in their heads, but not necessarily in their hearts. We, the fans, want so badly for that lonely '41 to find its true companion some day.
So I hope you enjoyed the hell out of this ride. I know I did.
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Help B5Q put a bow on the 2013-14 basketball season. Stop back to share memories of this year's seniors as we roll out our Senior Salutes over the next week.
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