INDIANAPOLIS—No one in the Wisconsin locker room was ready. Not one.
The Badgers (36-4) lost 68-63 to Duke (35-4) in the national championship game they wanted all season long, and it hurt. No player, coach or manager even attempted to hide it.
Sam Dekker came close to sobbing, his eyes and their surroundings as red as his jersey. Nigel Hayes was numb, staring blankly into space. Bronson Koenig was unwilling to give answers, glibly responding to one question on the Blue Devils’ success with, “You know why.”
Frank Kaminsky hid his face in his shirt, unable to summon a word. Bo Ryan got snippy, criticizing the referees for too physical a game.
This team had played the most difficult set of tournament opponents in college basketball history, the first ever team to see the highest possible seed in every matchup, and watched the final game slip away like a weak punchline to a long joke.
“The only thing we cared about since our season ended last year was getting back and winning a national championship,” Hayes said. “We were a couple possessions, a couple calls, a couple plays from actualizing that goal.”
The journey is over, and the destination is disappointing. But the team still has the bonds from that journey and through the tears, every player made that clear.
“These guys are my family, and I mean that literally, I don’t mean that [figuratively],” Kaminsky said. “I’ve never been closer to a group of guys in my entire life, from the coaching staff on down to every single player on this team. It’s just going to be hard to say goodbye.”
Never been more proud of a group in my entire life. What we achieved will never be taken away from us. Thank you for having me @UWMadison— Frank Kaminsky III (@FSKPart3) April 7, 2015
“I love these guys,” said Duje Dukan. “These are the brothers I never had, growing up an only child. These are the people I want around me the rest of my life. We did something so special this year, it just hurts that it has to end like this.”
A happy ending isn’t required for a happy story, and the Badgers’ tournament run is singular proof of that. The word cattywampus will be an inside joke at Wisconsin for years, thanks to Hayes’ vocabulary. UW press conferences became must-see video as one-liners rained. Dekker immolated Arizona. And, of course, 38 and done.
The joy of this run is going to become clearer in the coming days. But for a night, or a week, it’s going to be dark. Looking at what Wisconsin loses, a return to the Final Four is going to be improbable next year.
Seniors Frank Kaminsky, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan’s Wisconsin careers are over. Junior Sam Dekker might leave for the NBA too, but there was no way he could possibly commit after the game. He’ll evaluate his choices after his return to Madison.
My apologies for a disappointing end to the year, but thank you to all of Badger Nation. Very proud to be a part of this. All love.
— Sam Dekker (@dekker) April 7, 2015
Good players and somehow even better teammates, Ryan isn’t going to forget what his time with these departing players meant.
“It will be in my memory bank, but it’s not something that you easily express,” Ryan said. “If you’ve ever played on a team, if you ever were in the service, if you were ever with a company for a long period of time, there’s things that happen and things that develop. It’s hard to describe ‘em.”
That inexpressible chemistry has been broken, but its imprint is going to linger for a long time. It could be a while before we see Wisconsin win a double Big Ten championship, or earn a 1-seed, or have the best player in the country. We’ll likely never see a win like Kentucky again. To have that all in the same season adds up to one incredible ride for fans who followed the team from the beginning.
This team could go down as the best in Wisconsin history. Sure, the 1941 team won a title, but that was a different era with far lesser athletes. This team was special, a group of goofy Midwestern guys in Wisconsin making ‘em believe. This loss doesn’t take that away, because the season was special in a way that went beyond wins and losses. Like any great season.
No one was ready for the year to end the way it did, but the memories of the 2014-’15 season will shine through soon enough. Just give it time.