What a ride. What a journey. What a season. Looking back on the 2013-14 Wisconsin basketball season, it is impossible not to appreciate the road that this team took to the Final Four. Getting to the main stage of college basketball, the Final Four, is no small feat. Saturday’s ending was disappointing, crushing for the players who had their biggest goal right in front of them.
Before I take inventory of the whole season, I would like to discuss the Kentucky game. There is nothing the Badgers can do beyond tipping their hat and acknowledging what the Wildcats did. Kentucky won a toss up game on an unbelievable shot and did just enough to edge Wisconsin when it mattered most. If you were to replay those final three possessions ten times, starting with the Jackson free throws, you would likely have ten different endings with each team winning five times. That’s how close this was. Sadly, the only outcome that matters is the one that transpired.
Traevon Jackson has been a lightning rod for irrational criticism all year but anyone knocking his effort based on those final possessions is terribly misguided. The kid scored 12 points and added four rebounds and three assists, playing basically half of the game due to foul trouble in the first half. He made two of three free throws and put Wisconsin up by a possession with only seconds remaining. Any team in America would give anything to lead a Final Four game by two with ten seconds left. Jackson also got a good look at the basket on the final possession, missing a shot that he has made time and time again in clutch situations for the Badgers. Saturday night, things just didn’t go his way. That’s sports. That’s life.
Kentucky made a ridiculous shot and they deserve nothing but credit for doing so. John Calipari essentially said that Wisconsin did everything to deserve to win and that an amazing shot with a stroke of luck propelled his team to the championship game. It is hard to accept the way it ended, just because it was so close and a win would have been one of the top moments in Wisconsin sports history. These opportunities don't come around very often, so it is tough to see one sip away the way Saturday's did.
Wisconsin matched up a team filled with NBA prospects for 40 minutes. I will even assert that they were the better team for about 35 of those minutes, save for the 15-0 Kentucky run at the start of the second half. Unfortunately that stretch changed the game and even though the Badgers fought back, even taking the lead, they squandered their chance to pull away for good. Still, Wisconsin deserves nothing but credit for not flinching in the face of a fantastic run. It was a fantastic basketball game that could have gone either way. On that note, I’m going to take inventory of the season as a whole with regard to my preseason predictions.
I predicted a 24-7 regular season campaign for the Badgers and was only one game off of the actual record of 25-6. However, there were plenty of areas where I wasn’t quite so accurate.
Its funny how ppl say I have a"ceiling"as a player. Like every time I play I try to be as good as other players. I aim to prove you wrong.— Frank Kaminsky III (@FSKPart3) October 17, 2013
Needless to say, I am very glad I was wrong on that one. Frank the Tank burst onto the national scene late in the season, highlighted by his performance against Arizona in the Elite Eight. A first team all B1G selection, Kaminsky exceeded any outside expectations set for him.
Sam Dekker was a point of interest all season. While his name kept popping up on NBA draft projections, his on court production didn’t seem to warrant the attention. Of course, the NBA draft is based largely on potential (which Dekker has mountains of) but that kind of recognition will undoubtedly raise expectations. Dekker’s season was good. He was an adequate forward who did what he needed to do to help his team. However, he never carried the Badgers and never really showed the ability to do so, which was an expectation placed upon him by some. To be fair, in Bo Ryan’s equal opportunity offense expecting one player to carry the team is unwise, and thankfully, due to the balance of this team, Dekker never really had to be the one to step up in clutch moments. The expectations will never stop, and hopefully Dekker continues to develop and fulfill his vast potential.
I said all along, one thing Bo needed to do was beat a team that was equal to his in the tournament. The win over Arizona fulfilled that, and Wisconsin finally won a toss up game in March. Many Wisconsin teams would have been run of the gym by Oregon in the second round. A matchup like Baylor could have been problematic for less rounded teams. This Badgers team was special in that, for the first time ever, they could score in multiple ways and could play comfortably at multiple speeds. This team showed that in college basketball today it is worth sacrificing some defensive prowess in exchange for more emphasis on the offensive end. This team was fine defensively, but was below Bo’s standards. The offense more than made up for that, however, and scoring is what ultimately carried them.
This team overcame adversity all season, especially when it mattered most. They shrugged off a 1-5 stretch and bounced back to earn a two seed in the tournament. They overcame a 12 point defecit against Oregon, which some fans (ok, me) thought to be insurmountable. They hung with Arizona and Kentucky blow for blow, winning one and losing one. As a UW student, it is impossible not to be proud of what this team did for the city and the university. They are the first Bo Ryan team to finally get over the hump and into the last weekend of the tournament and it is impossible to overstate the importance of that.
I am going to miss this team a lot. They were fun to watch and seemed to genuinely enjoy playing together. I will miss Ben Brust, because when you follow kids throughout their careers, you almost feel like you know them in a way. Brust developed into a great all around player and left Badger fans with many special memories.
The future of Wisconsin basketball is bright. Next year’s team will return four starters and the three leading contributors off the bench. Another year of development under Bo should lead to Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes being major contributors. The program took another major turn upward with this run and the benefits of this exposure could keep Wisconsin basketball on the national map for years to come – even after Bo eventually hangs it up. Next year will be strange in that preseason expectations will be higher than ever and a national championship will be the only goal. Wisconsin will be a preseason top five team and the likely pick to win the B1G. That is uncharted territory for Wisconsin and while it is exciting, it also puts more emphasis on the destination than on the journey. Badger fans: let’s all enjoy what we have and never take it for granted. The program is top 20 nationally and rising. This season featured one of the best journeys to date. Keeping an eye on the destination is great, but let’s always remember to enjoy the journey. Here's hoping the good times continue. On, Wisconsin.