David Stluka / UW Athletics
You know that numbness you feel when something you were certain would happen, in the end, does not? That’s how I felt as the final seconds of the NCAA men’s basketball national championship game ticked off the clock Monday night — bringing to a cold-hearted close at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis the Wisconsin Badgers’ season of destiny.
After building a nine-point lead over Duke late in the second half, UW allowed the freshmen-led Blue Devils to go on a 10-0 streak and take the lead, 66-58. Duke then proceeded to win its fifth national title, 68-63, despite a final surge by the Badgers.
I wasn't the only one shellshocked. Jay Wilson, sports director for WISC-TV, seemed just as dazed when he went on the air at 11 p.m. for News 3’s post-game coverage.
The 2014-15 Badgers, led by four seniors (guards Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson and forwards Duje Dukan and national player of the year Frank Kaminsky), will be remembered for their tenacity, their chemistry and their character. This team brought much-deserved attention to an admirable program, proving at least two things: It’s possible to shine in the spotlight and conduct yourself with dignity, win or lose — I’m looking at you, Andrew Harrison — and experience still counts for something in college basketball.
Here’s a group of extremely likeable and entertaining guys that not only made stenography funny, but turned people who didn’t care about college basketball into fans — I’m looking at you, Mom and Dad.
And try to forget, at least for a few minutes, that Duke beat Wisconsin with a foursome of freshmen that produced all but eight of the Blue Devils’ points. Without the leadership of Gasser, Kaminsky and junior forward Sam Dekker, it’s difficult to speculate how far this physically talented team would have advanced in the NCAA tournament. Certainly not to the title game.
Kaminsky will play in the NBA next season. So might Dekker; he was too devastated to discuss that possibility Monday night. Sophomore forward Nigel Hayes already has made up his mind, though. “I’m nowhere near good enough to do anything but come back,” he told reporters.
Regardless of Dekker’s future with the Badgers, Hayes and sophomore guard Bronson Koenig will need to step into those leadership roles vacated by Kaminsky and Gasser. Sophomore guard Zak Showalter must up his game, too. We might even see freshman Aaron Moesch play next season.
We’ll have plenty of time to ponder the “what wills” during the months ahead. This week, though, the “what ifs” are the ones that hurt the most.
In a postgame press conference late Monday night, Kaminsky — looking as sullen as I’ve ever seen him, head in his left hand and clutching his hair — found it tough to talk about the loss to Duke, let alone the Badgers’ run and the end of his collegiate career. “It’s just gonna be hard to say goodbye,” he said.