To have the greatest four-year stretch in Wisconsin basketball history end the way it did Friday night feels unfairly cruel and yet, almost heartbreakingly appropriate at the same time.
The departing senior class of Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter will hold a special place in Badgers fans’ hearts for years to come given the crucial role they played in the program’s success over the last four seasons. They compiled a 115-35 overall record, a 52-20 mark in Big Ten play and a 13-4 record in the NCAA Tournament. They made four consecutive Sweet 16 appearances (no other school has an active streak that long), had two Final Four trips and appeared in the national championship game.
During that time, they have also been instrumental in helping create March Madness moments that will live on forever in Wisconsin lore—the overtime win in the Elite Eight over Arizona in 2014, ending Kentucky’s quest for a perfect season during the 2015 Final Four, Koenig’s buzzer beater to beat Xavier in last year’s tournament and knocking off top-seeded Villanova to advance to this season’s Sweet 16, just to name a few.
But for each incredible NCAA Tournament run over the last four years, there has been an agonizing ending for the Badgers and their fans.
Three years ago, it was Aaron Harrison’s late go-ahead 3-pointer to knock the Badgers out of the national semifinals. In 2015, it was a blown nine-point lead in the second half of the national championship game against Duke. In last year’s Sweet 16, it was a late-game meltdown that saw a three-point lead with 20 seconds remaining turn into a five-point loss to Notre Dame. And now, it’s Chris Chiozza’s off-balance overtime buzzer beater to deny the Badgers a shot at another Final Four appearance and end the illustrious careers of their four seniors.
As with any game that is decided by such a thin margin, UW players, coaches and fans will spend a lot of time thinking about all the little things that could have changed the outcome. The five missed free throws in overtime, four of them by Hayes, really stand out. Khalil Iverson was unable to finish a fast-break dunk or a layup late in OT that could’ve sealed it. Florida scored 20 points off 16 Wisconsin turnovers. If the Badgers don’t foul a struggling KeVaughn Allen on two 3-point attempts late in the first half, maybe he never goes off for a career-high 35 points.
While the Gators’ win allows them to forget about things like the overtime possession where they missed a trio of 3-pointers, the Badgers are left agonizing over every miscue and missed opportunity.
Having yet another NCAA Tournament run end in such a soul-crushing fashion cast a dark cloud over the chance to celebrate the four Wisconsin seniors and all they accomplished one last time. They deserved better than such an abrupt, unceremonious exit.
Of course, March Madness doesn’t lend itself to many happy endings, as Wisconsin has learned time and time again.
Koenig was hampered late in the game by a hamstring injury or cramps. Brown could only watch everything unfold from the bench after fouling out with seven minutes left in regulation. Hayes, who had been so crucial to the Badgers’ resurgence over the last few weeks, will be left thinking about those missed free throws. Showalter’s miraculous, game-tying 3-pointer—followed by the Aaron Rodgers championship belt celebration in the presence of the man himself—could have been an all-time March Madness moment. Instead, it will join Rodgers’s Hail Mary against the Arizona Cardinals from the playoffs a couple years ago in the “what-if” Hall of Fame.
The last four seasons have been the very best of the golden era of Wisconsin basketball, but with every player who logged meaningful minutes on those back-to-back Final Four squads now gone, Wisconsin now heads off into a somewhat uncertain future under Greg Gard.
Next season will be a rebuilding year (by Wisconsin’s standards), but there is cause for optimism. Ethan Happ is back and will likely be the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten Player of the Year. The incoming recruiting class of Kobe King, Nate Reuvers and Brad Davison is arguably the best in school history. The Badgers look well positioned to build off their recent success, and that’s thanks in large part to the departing group of seniors. They helped launch the program to new heights and show that Wisconsin can in fact contend for national titles.
However, there is always the chance that this stretch marks a high point for Badgers basketball that they will never quite reach again. That’s what made this senior class and the last four years so special, and it’s what makes the latest in a line of NCAA Tournament heartbreakers such a tough pill to swallow.