Damn, Wisconsin lost the national championship game, and boy, does it suck. Could it be the latest in a seemingly endless series of gut punches to Wisconsin fans? Put in context with the Final Four loss last season and the football team's frustrating inability to go from good to great (over the last few years on that, actually), there's really no doubt. For this season, though, the analogy has to be to the world-weary aphorism that it's better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.
This team's achievements this season were myriad, and some were generational and program-defining:
- Program-best 36-4 final record
- Outright Big Ten Conference regular season title
- Big Ten Conference tournament title
- Program-first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament
- Repeat Final Four/Regional champion
- National semi-final win over 38-0 juggernaut, tournament top-seed, and college basketball blue blood Kentucky
- Team's first title game berth in 71 years.
Yes, 71 years. That the team lost the big one takes none of this away. Disappointing, absolutely, but diminishing? Not a chance.
Consider also the individuals that made up this team, starting with a unanimous national player of the year in forward Frank Kaminsky, a senior who developed under Bo Ryan and his assistants into his present eminence from a lightly recruited beanpole from Chicago's western suburbs. Junior forward Sam Dekker lived up to his massive pre-season -- and in fact, pre-collegiate, billing -- and exploded under the bright lights of the college game's biggest stage. Senior guard Josh Gasser, aka Captain America, remained the steady hand throughout, and sophomores Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes showed their future All-American potential. Stars, all of them.
The national attention and affection this team garnered was unprecedented. Much of that came from its off-court looseness, camaraderie, all-around good humor. Every press conference for the last three weeks was a highly anticipated affair. Of course, when game time came, the team became laser-focused, out-clutching its way through a rematch with Oregon, and then perennial heavyweights in North Carolina, Arizona, and Kentucky. It was only in the very last minutes of the very last game that they frayed. Still, it's not a far-fetched notion that many across the nation were pulling for the Badgers on Monday night -- not necessarily because so many like to watch Duke lose, but because these Badgers were just so likable, and just so darn relatable.
That relatability cannot be overlooked. These were players not just from Lisle, Ill., but from Sheboygan, LaCrosse, and Port Washington, Wis. So much was made about the multiple McDonald's All-Americans and one-year diaper dandies that filled Kentucky's and Duke's rosters, and how that so contrasted with Wisconsin's "average joes." It's oversimplified given the natural talent obviously possessed by this Wisconsin team, but their longevity and hard-won chemistry together, in college and part of a team that played team basketball was, for many, a restoration in faith that things done the "right way" could still, in 2015, be phenomenally successful. This kind of popular and democratic appeal remains a critical part of what makes sports, and sports fandom in particular, so gratifying -- and these guys had it in spades.
In sports, and surely in anyone's life, it takes strength and courage, dedication and discipline to achieve high and worthy goals; expectations require an almost singular focus. When the clock expired in Dallas last April, these players knew what their goals were. Wisconsin was a unanimous pick to win the Big Ten; Kaminsky and Dekker were pre-season All-Americans. Yet, they knew none of it would be given, only earned. They never wavered, even in those last few minutes on Monday night. Outplayed and out-executed in crunch time of a game for the first time in over a month maybe, but waver they did not.
Finally, there's Ryan. Now it's a bit of a mystery as to why fellow Hall of Fame nominee John Calapari (no diss) will be inducted before him, and many (but definitely not all) in the national and non-local media will continue forever to critique his words out of their context -- find his criticisms and observations out-of-bounds while granting passes to others deemed more holy (i.e, Coach K) when they say basically the same things, and misunderstand, misinterpret, and misapprehend his strategies and tactics.
Like it or not: he's bona fide. Two consecutive Final Fours, in addition to never missing an NCAA cut and never finishing below fourth in the Big Ten, speak for themselves. How late it is in his unimpeachably illustrious career we do not presently know, but even if you somehow didn't think so before, he's most definitely arrived -- a basketball coach in full.
It'll be tough to get over the disappointment of Monday night's loss to Duke. It'll be tough to get past the plain fact that the team didn't play its best; Dekker, so instrumental in getting them as far as they did, Gasser, Koenig, and senior guard Traevon Jackson, scorer of 25 points against Duke in December and inspirational returner from injury just over a week before, didn't have their best games either. There's also the objectively poor officiating, where, in contrast to the win over Kentucky, the bad calls were just simply not spread out more evenly between the two teams.
You can even reasonably question Ryan himself. Too much time for Jackson, not enough for sophomore Zak Showalter, or not adequately scheming to counter the spectacular play by Duke's two freshman guards, Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen. Defending guards, both on the dribble-drive and shooting from the perimeter, was one of the very, very few season-long and well-known issues for his team, but exploit it these two did.
On the other hand, this Duke team beat this Wisconsin team twice this season, and maybe there's something to that.
Disappointment, profound and real as it is right this minute, will wear off in time. Several players on this team will play in the NBA, and next season should finish with at least another fourth-place in the Big Ten and a decent chance at the Sweet Sixteen (or beyond). The players on the roster will develop and blossom, and more future pros will join and pass through it in the coming years.
Make no mistake, Wisconsin basketball is now undeniably part of the national consciousness, and more than in the usual "death, taxes, and Bo Ryan." It may be a while before the Badgers play for all the marbles again, but barring a catastrophe, only a fool can now dismiss that possibility out of hand.