The only comment among Badger hoops fans this week more common than 'My bracket is a yard sale' might be, 'Well, it was still a great season.' But that's not true.
The body of work turned in by the 2006-07 Wisconsin men's basketball team was certainly admirable: 30 wins, 13 in the Big Ten, several weeks ranked in the nation's top five, Alando Tucker reaching 2,000 points, numerous fawning segments on cable networks. But in college basketball, teams are judged by how well they do in the NCAA tournament.
This team's goal wasn't just to play in the Final Four, but to clinch the championship. As senior center Jason Chappell put it after the Badgers' final home game on March 3, 'We want to win it all. Anything less and we won't be happy.'
But after the Badgers were beat in the second round by a determined and hot-shooting UNLV squad, the reaction among Badger fans was an illustration of the infamous emotional stages of grief.
Denial showed up in the post-game press conference when coach Bo Ryan addressed the play of UNLV's Kevin Kruger, who poured in 16 points on hot outside shooting. Kruger, son of UNLV coach Lon Kruger, played three seasons at Arizona State before transferring to UNLV under a now-rescinded rule that allowed players with a fifth year of eligibility to transfer and play immediately, under certain conditions.
'I'm one of those hundreds of coaches out there who tried to stop the rule of fifth-year guys transferring from one school to another,' said Ryan, somewhat bitterly. 'I said, 'A guy like Kevin Kruger, he can play, and we're liable to play those guys, and he's liable to beat us.' I said that a year ago.'
But Kruger was only the most recent guard to get hot from outside against the Badgers, and none of the previous perpetrators ' notably Michigan State's Drew Neitzel ' were fifth-year transfers.
The next phase, anger, took over as some fans lashed out at the team for lacking heart, especially in the final minutes, when the game was still within reach. Now those who have moved on to the bargaining phase are starting to break down next year's team, searching for signs that they'll be able to put together a credible run for the postseason.
That will be followed quickly by depression, when fans realize that the Badgers have lost their two most reliable scorers in Kammron Taylor and Alando Tucker, along with solid starter Jason Chappell, who did a lot of the little things that successful teams covet.
Finally, there will be acceptance as fans grasp that Wisconsin simply isn't like Ohio State, which seems to always be in contention for a national title in football or basketball. The good news: If you've ever hung around with a Buckeye fan, you'll know that doesn't always mean a better quality of life.
Hockey team gets frozen out
Most disappointing about March Madness this year was the lack of respect shown the UW women's hockey squad, which repeated as national champs over the weekend. Predictably, the local media spotlight focused on Chicago for the men's hoops tourney, leaving the women skaters to dominate their opponents at the Frozen Four in Lake Placid, N.Y., in relative obscurity.
The State Journal devoted the most attention to the team, sending senior writer Andy Baggot to Lake Placid to preview the weekend's events in a column last Friday. But instead of taking the opportunity to introduce his readers to what is perhaps the most dominant Wisconsin team, he chose to write about coach Mark Johnson's experiences in returning to the site of the 1980 Olympics. (Johnson was a key member of the 'Miracle on Ice' team that beat the Russians and won the gold medal in Lake Placid.)
Two weeks ago, when the Badger skaters hosted Harvard in the NCAA tournament's first round, 5,125 fans arrived at the Kohl Center to find a shuttered souvenir shop and a skeletal pep band. The scoreboard video screens played none of the fun and fan-friendly clips that entertain the kind of casual fans the program would love to retain from such an event. And when regulation time ended in a scoreless tie, there were no announcements about the format for overtime.
On their path to the national title, the Badgers outscored Harvard, St. Lawrence and Minnesota-Duluth, 9-1, to finish their season with a 36-1-4 record. They are the odds-on favorites to three-peat next year. The question is, will they get the promotional push they deserve from the UW athletic department?