It’s hard to push away the initial frustration — to come to terms with a down-to-the wire, heartbreaking loss. It seems impossible to shake the visions of what could have been, with the Elite Eight or even Final Four glory possible if not for that disastrous three-point heave to close the game.
But in reflecting on the 64-63 loss that ended the careers of Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson in cardinal and white jerseys, it’s hard to judge this season as anything less than a tremendous success. To think that this squad lost two of its top three scorers in Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil, along with another starter — the always-lovable Tim Jarmusz — and still managed a Sweet 16 run is simply remarkable.
Leuer — now molding into a reliable role player for the Milwaukee Bucks — led the team with better than 18 points and seven rebounds per contest in 2010-11. The streaky Nankivil added 9.7 points per and ranked second on the team with 4.2 boards per game while averaging more than 27 minutes of play. Yet even the loss of those two dynamic shooters wasn’t sufficient for a rebuilding year in Madison.
Let’s take a step back to see how the Badgers’ chances looked in late December, well past the midway point of the regular season. Wisconsin had just dropped its third consecutive Big Ten game in a demoralizing 18-point loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor. There were skeptical voices ringing that maybe, just maybe, this would be the year Bo Ryan and Co. couldn’t pull it together. Maybe, after all the talent and scoring UW had lost, it wouldn’t be able to finish among the Big Ten’s top four in a year with the strongest lineup of teams, top-to-bottom, in conference history.
But the Badgers were able to regain their composure from a stretch that included a home loss to Iowa, reeling off six victories in a row after surviving their lowest point of the season. After thinking about where this team stood just 10 weeks ago, it’s difficult not to be pleased with a last-second loss in the regional semifinals to a No. 1 seed.
I have a feeling that if Wisconsin fans were told at the beginning of this year that their favorite team would fall in the Sweet 16, most would be pleasantly surprised.
So just how did the Badgers get it done to emerge at season’s end with a 26-10 record despite having no player averaging 15 points or more this year?
The senior point guard certainly deserves a significant portion of the credit for corralling another solid tourney run, but in a season when questions abounded about who exactly would score outside of Taylor in the preseason, it was the year of the role player. Eight different players finished with double figures in at least two games this season. Two junior forwards in Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren answered many of those questions, but the likes of Josh Gasser, Rob Wilson and Ben Brust all proved themselves to be legitimate scorers this season.
Without the collective effort of these skilled but not gifted scorers, Wisconsin would never have to worry about a March Madness run in the first place. What’s so impressive about this team’s success is that it’s the result of so many different players trading nights as the biggest star on the hardwood. This season, six different players led the team in scoring over the course of UW’s 36 games — Taylor, Berggren, Evans, Wilson and Brust. For a team that many, myself included, believed lacked any dependable star outside of Taylor, such statistics show how far a combined effort can take a team.
In the season-ending defeat at Boston’s TD Garden, Berggren and Taylor each did their part — both closed the game with 17 points. Even on the biggest stages, notably the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, UW proved to be more than a one-man scoring machine, far from a nightly production of the Jordan Taylor Show. That ability to spread the scoring is precisely what landed the Badgers just two points short of their first appearance in the Elite Eight since 2005.
This success of Wisconsin’s was entirely predicated on defense, as it frustrated opponents in keeping them to just 53.2 points a game, tops in the nation. This defense-first mentality combined with a team-wide selflessness on offense to get the ball to the hot hand (of particular importance when tossing up an average of 21.5 three-pointers per game) powered this team to conference title contention.
True, these are staples of any Ryan-coached team, but this one in particular seemed to lack the pieces to pull off the perennial expectations — competing for the Big Ten crown and earning a spot in the NCAA tourney.
So as you try to put those memories of Gasser throwing up a hopeless shot and then collapsing to the floor to rest, it may help to remember that this team vastly overachieved.
Spring football is starting up, so maybe it’s time to start dreaming about Bret Bielema’s squad. Do the Badgers have another Big Ten Championship title run in them this year?
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Do you agree that the Badgers well exceeded expectations this year, or should fans not be pleased with another Sweet 16 run? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @imccue.