Wisconsin’s season, one filled with failures to realize their rarefied potential, reached its logical conclusion Friday night.
Against a team that was missing its marquee player, in front of a friendly crowd in San Jose, the Badgers fell victim to the same errors they had committed throughout the year, and got what they deserved as a result.
Despite a gritty performance, Wisconsin couldn’t make its open shots — a common theme throughout the last couple — weeks and turned the ball over at inopportune times. Unable to manufacture points, the Badgers could do little to keep pace with a more athletic opponent. It was a performance imbued with a nauseating sense of deja vu.
After a deflating letdown in the postseason, it’s necessary to reflect on what was, and what could have been. With so many players who made sizable contributions to this year’s success at one time or another, the prospects were tantalizing for Wisconsin’s season.
From sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice’s torrid start from behind the arc, to senior guard Khalil Iverson’s late-season offensive renaissance, to sophomore forward Aleem Ford’s flashes of brilliance, the 2018-’19 Badgers dispensed with the notion that they revolved around one player.
If they put it all together, this team was bound to make some noise. They were almost never the sum of their parts, though — one player’s brilliance counterbalanced by another’s anonymity.
Friday’s loss, which featured long stretches of cold shooting and an utter lack of consistency, closed the book on this frustratingly fickle team. Though their defense kept them afloat throughout the year, they failed to convert open looks and allowed themselves to get into a funk in many big games this season. Against Oregon, these flaws reared their ugly heads.
This end, foreseeable as it may have been, was also an apt ending to the career of an all-time Badger great. Sulking off the floor with 88 seconds to go, wiping his face with a towel as he gazed into the distance, Ethan Happ left fans an enduring image of his personality as a Wisconsin player: stoic, dignified, yet ultimately unsuccessful.
Despite his countless hustle plays, he turned the ball over too much, something he quickly acknowledged. And he could only watch submissively as his teammates misfired on shot after shot. Asked about his team’s countless misses from outside, a question he’s received several times over the last few weeks, he sighed, “I don’t shoot them.”
Though it is difficult to assess a career with little hindsight, the Ethan Happ era will be remembered for several things. It was notable for its exhilarating victories — upsets over Michigan State, Villanova, Michigan, Purdue, Xavier and countless others. It contained innumerable spin moves, reverse layups and missed free throws.
This period in Wisconsin’s history, however, will also evoke no shortage of regrets. The collapse down the stretch in the 2016 Sweet Sixteen against Notre Dame. A flat second half against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament final the following year. The sight of Chris Chiozza’s prayer improbably dropping through the net at Madison Square Garden, only weeks later. And the sight of Oregon’s big men flying down the court, throwing down dunks against a helpless Badger defense.
This melange of great successes and stinging disappointments will preclude observers from drawing any unanimous conclusions about Happ’s legacy. Fans will, as they tend to do, pick and choose what to hold on to and what to let go.
Some will remember him as a loyal, team player who cared for the Madison community and wanted desperately to win, even when the talented upperclassmen who surrounded him as a youngster departed. Others will lament his failure to develop a jump shot, his occasional disappearances in big moments and, most notably, the zero conference championships won as an active player.
How one chooses to reconcile the undeniable contrast between his transcendent abilities and the difficult memories of his team’s ultimate shortcomings will be up to the beholder.
Of course, there’s always next year for Wisconsin’s basketball program. New stars will emerge and new heroes will be coronated. This program will likely one day return to the dizzying heights they reached only a few years ago.
Yet for Happ — consigned to the role of tragic hero in this drama — and those of us who have had the pleasure of watching and covering his career, looking to the future may be difficult. As we reflect on an illustrious four-year career that could have been something truly special, only two words come to mind: “What if?”