Season not diminished by championship game loss

I didn’t think I would come to accept the Badgers’ title game loss to Duke as quickly as I did. It’s only been a week now, but Wisconsin’s defeat to one of the most hated teams in college basketball seems like a distant memory.

I walked through the malaise of emotions on State Street after the game ended—some people were yelling, some were in tears. Others, like me, were just speechless and in disbelief that the best season in Wisconsin basketball history didn’t have the storybook ending we were all anticipating.

When Tuesday came around, I felt empty. I couldn’t do anything without my mind shifting to how devastating a loss it was and the realization the Badgers were that close to being champions.

But soon after, I realized maybe the storybook ending didn’t matter. Maybe it just wasn’t supposed to happen. Think back to the game and how all the bounces seemed to go Duke’s way. Nigel Hayes and Traevon Jackson both missed layups they normally finish. Frank Kaminsky lost the handle on a ball in midair, ruining a would-be and-1. And Jahlil Okafor made a ridiculous desperation shot while being fouled by Kaminsky late in the game. It just wasn’t the Badgers’ night.

Yes, this was Bo Ryan’s best chance to win a championship. The team isn’t going to fall into some abyss, but Bo only has a few years left before retirement and he will never have this collection of talent again. The Badgers’ back-to-back Final Four runs validated how good this team was, and recruiting and developing these players into what they are now took a lot of time. For a program like Wisconsin, championship pursuits aren’t an overnight process.

But there’s nothing morally correct about how Wisconsin runs its program, nor is there anything morally wrong with how powerhouses like Duke and Kentucky run theirs. Bringing in massively talented recruits is the best way to win. Ryan understands that—it’s why he chased UCLA’s Kevon Looney, a one-and-done player, and Maryland’s Diamond Stone, whom many expect to leave after his freshman season.

Regardless, Ryan has built Wisconsin into one of the nation’s best and most consistent programs. We’re now accustomed to watching the Badgers in the tournament every year, but they spent decades in college basketball’s wasteland before this. Dick Bennett laid that foundation, and Ryan has taken the team to new heights.

Essentially, this team deserves immense appreciation, championship or not. From what Wisconsin used to be to what it is today is a complete and stunning turnaround. While we cannot expect the Badgers to always contend for titles, now we can at least expect a very good team every year.

Think about small schools like UW-Milwaukee. The Panthers made a surprising Sweet 16 run in 2005 and haven’t done anything notable since. Fans of that team must latch onto one year of decency that happened 10 years ago. Even if Wisconsin slips slightly, Badger fans will still have consecutive Final Four appearances to cherish, accomplishments of remarkable magnitude.

The NCAA Tournament is loved for its unpredictability, but typically Cinderellas fizzle out before they get too far. Not every program can make it to the Final Four, much less two years in a row.

So remember this team. We’ll always have the goofy press conferences, storming State Street twice and the cathartic defeat of Kentucky. We won’t have the elusive championship, but the other memories make up for it.

Have you gotten over the Badgers’ loss yet? What are some of the ways you’ve coped with last week’s disappointment? Share your thoughts with Jim at jim.dayton@dailycardinal.com.

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