ARLINGTON, Texas — When a relationship comes to an end, it can be tough to see the positives in the situation. When Wisconsin’s season ended Saturday night, it felt much the same way. But even with all the negative emotions, plenty of positives still surround the Badgers’ season and return to the Final Four, even though it might be hard to conjure them up right now.
As I watched students around me at AT&T Stadium Saturday night after the final buzzer sounded on Wisconsin’s season, most of their faces were clad with looks of disbelief, disappointment and, in many cases, just sheer heartbreak, mirroring the Badger players on the court.
After coming back from a second half deficit, Wisconsin led by two with only 16 seconds left to go in the game, and it was hard to think that the Badgers could lose the game. Then the rising hope was shot down with Aaron Harrison’s three-point dagger, and for just the eighth time this season the Badgers were faced with the task of dealing with a loss, only this time that loss carried with it a finality of a season’s conclusion and the end of three players’ careers.
I was fortunate enough to experience the game as a fan along with several hundred other UW students, and I can only imagine what it was like to be in the players’ shoes and endure such a gut-wrenching loss. Even as just a bystander, the loss felt a lot like getting broken up with after a long, successful relationship. In the hours following the game, I went through a myriad of emotions and it’s safe to say I’ve gone through the five stages of mourning.
Reality can be hard to accept and regardless of whether I’ve reached that point yet, what’s worth accepting is that this season wasn’t just any ordinary season in Wisconsin’s terms — or in any team’s for that matter. Maybe that’s why the emotions have been so much stronger this time.
For starters, the obvious is that Wisconsin made it all the way to the Final Four for the first time under Bo Ryan and for just the second time in school history. If you told a Badger fan 25 or 30 years ago that Wisconsin basketball team was in the Final Four, he or she would have probably laughed in your face. Wisconsin was just plain bad at basketball for quite a long time. Besides hockey, before our generation came about, Badger athletics were nowhere even close to the level of success that have been experienced as of late.
To say that we’ve been spoiled would be putting it lightly. The senior class of the UW student body has witnessed three Rose Bowls and a Final Four, a success only rivaled by the senior class of 2000, which was treated to back-to-back Rose Bowl victories and the 2000 Final Four that ended just as this one did.
I won’t belabor the point of how we’ve been spoiled, but the fact remains that the success of the basketball program, especially under Ryan, would have been unprecedented 30 years ago. The success has been so moving that a close friend of mine’s father, who has owned season tickets dating back to the un-glory days of Wisconsin basketball, became teary eyed last weekend — something my friend hadn’t seen before — after the Badgers had secured a spot in the Final Four.
Remember, it took Wisconsin 47 years just to secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament when it finally broke the almost half-century drought by going to the Big Dance in 1994. For those loyal, lifelong fans who suffered through those arduous unsuccessful years, going to the Final Four is the crowning achievement of Badger basketball fandom.
Beating Kentucky and going to the National Championship would have been much more desirable, but for those of us who weren’t alive when a Final Four was just a dream, making such a deep run in the tournament is hardly an end result to sulk about.
Outside of the historical context of what this season and tournament run mean in the grand scheme of things, this season in and of itself was something special. Wisconsin finished the season with an overall record of 30-8, which is the third time in school history the Badgers have made it to the 30 win plateau. Along the way, Wisconsin reeled off 16-straight wins to set the school record for most victories in a row.
There were team efforts in the 30 wins, and there were also some impressive individual efforts during the season.
Frank Kaminsky, who’s become better known as Frank the Tank, went unconscious against North Dakota when he went off for a career-high 43 points. Then, just last weekend, Kaminsky had a 28 point, 11 rebound performance in the Elite Eight matchup with Arizona to carry Wisconsin to the Final Four.
But it wasn’t just Kaminsky this season and it wasn’t just any one player who was the storyline for Wisconsin. In one game, it was one player or one set of players and in another game a different player or group stepped to the forefront. At a time in college basketball when players are playing to become the highest pick in the upcoming NBA draft, Wisconsin played as a team. In a team sport, you wouldn’t think it’d be rare to see teamwork and a group of guys coming together as one for the greater good, but the Badgers became an exception to what has become more and more of an individual-focused game.
At the same time, Wisconsin became more personable to all of us. We saw a side of Ryan many people might not have thought existed. It almost felt like we became part of one big family watching as the team came together throughout the year.
All the pieces just seemed to fall into place this year. The pieces meshing together didn’t result in a National Championship, but is that all that matters?
As I left AT&T Stadium Saturday night feeling empty inside, a fellow student turned to me and told me to enjoy the moment because it doesn’t happen often. A season with so much success doesn’t happen often, but even rarer is having a team, and not just a group of individuals, like this.
The season might be over and the direct relationship may have ended as well, but the memories from this season will last much longer and mean a lot more than wins and losses.