Despite their national championship game loss to Duke, the Wisconsin Badgers had a season, an NCAA tournament and a collection of players that won't soon be forgotten.
INDIANAPOLIS—Before you ask, Wisconsin wants you to know that the answer is: No. As in, no, the intensity of the Badgers’ win over Kentucky in the semifinals, the euphoria over beating the team so many had considered unbeatable, the physical and emotional energy it took to finally dispatch the undefeated Wildcats two nights earlier had nothing to do with their 68-63 loss to Duke in the national championship game on Monday night.
Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig, one of the Badgers who had been so articulate and expansive in his answers to the media during the entire tournament, wouldn’t even let a reporter finish posing the question afterward before he shut down the line of inquiry. Did the effort it took to beat Kentucky have any affect on—"No," Koenig said, sitting in front of his stall in the somber locker room. Then he took a long swig from a bottle of juice, sending the message that he would have nothing more to say on the matter.
Koenig’s teammates felt the same way, or at least said they did, which is admirable. The last thing they wanted was to appear to be using the upset of the Wildcats as an excuse for not being quite as sharp, quite as precise as they had been in their previous five tournament games. So, accept their answers, but draw your own conclusions. Sam Dekker, the small forward who had displayed an NBA-ready game against two of the best defenses in the country, Arizona and Kentucky, airballed his first shot against Duke and missed all six of his three-point attempts. He finished with 12 points on 6-for-15 shooting, mostly on hustle plays and putbacks, and it was a grind every step of the way.
“I just wasn’t in rhythm like I had been lately,” Dekker said. “Give credit to Duke for throwing a bunch of different defenses at me. It was making it tough for me. I was trying to contribute any way I could, but I’m putting this one on me. I just didn’t do enough for our team. I’m pretty disappointed in myself.”
But Dekker’s performance wasn’t the only evidence that the Badgers were drained. Their well-known ability to play tough defense without fouling was not in evidence Monday night, a sign that they might have been a step slower than usual. They committed 15 fouls, and Duke made 16 of its 20 free throws, twice as many as Wisconsin attempted. On one late possession, Duke went to freshman center Jahlil Okafor in the low post and the Badgers’ Frank Kaminsky simply grabbed him. There was some logic to the move since Okafor is a 51% free throw shooter, but Kaminsky didn’t even hold him tightly enough to keep Okafor from making the shot. At 6'11", 270 pounds, Okafor is as powerful as a pickup truck, but the 7-foot Kaminsky just seemed too gassed to make his best effort.
That’s not to say the Blue Devils, who had a much easier time in their semifinal against Michigan State than Wisconsin did against Kentucky, wouldn’t have given coach Mike Krzyzewski his fifth championship even if the Badgers had been on top of their game. They beat Wisconsin in Madison in December, after all, and they found a way overcome a nine-point second-half deficit on Monday before pulling away at the end even though Okafor and Winslow were in foul trouble for most of the game. “They’re a great defensive team,” guard Josh Gasser said. “They’ve gotten a lot better throughout the year. That’s what happened.”
And so the Badgers exit the stage, having made history with the Kentucky win and having made millions of admirers with their performance on and off the court in this tournament. Their sadness after the title game didn’t obscure all the fun they brought to March Madness over the last three weeks. From Kaminsky’s goofy dancing to forward Nigel Hayes’ joking with stenographers by flashing a vocabulary that was truly brobdingnagian (one of the few big words he didn’t toss out), Wisconsin was refreshing and entertaining every step of the way.
It was also a symbol, a reminder of how great college teams used to be built. These Badgers were years in the making, with Kaminsky, the late-blooming center who grew from a barely noticed sub his first two seasons into the national player of the year as a senior; Dekker, the junior wing whose all-around game never fully emerged until the tournament; and a roster full of upperclassmen who didn’t make recruiters’ hearts flutter as high schoolers but matured and improved into smart, solid college players.
In Kaminsky’s four seasons, Wisconsin climbed the rungs from a Sweet 16 his freshman year to a Final Four his junior season to a championship game appearance this spring. In this age of the one-and-done players, the Badgers are a testament to what a team that grows together can still accomplish. "These guys are my family," Kaminsky said, "and I mean that literally. I don’t mean that hypothetically. I’ve never been closer to a group of guys in my entire life." It’s hard to imagine that any NBA-bound freshman could have expressed the same depth of feeling.
Even in defeat to a team that relied heavily on two freshmen in Okafor and Winslow, both of whom are likely headed for the NBA next year, the Badgers were proud of their way of doing things. "We don't do a rent-a-player," coach Bo Ryan said after the game. "You know what I mean? If other people do that, that's O.K. I like trying to build from within. It's just the way I am. And to see these guys grow over the years and to be here last year and lose a tough game, boom, they came back."
They will come back next year without Kaminsky, Gasser and probably Dekker, among others. Wisconsin's players didn’t want this game to be their last memory, and it will be hard to live with for a while. Dekker watched the video of last year’s heartbreaking one-point loss to Kentucky in the Final Four seven or eight times, but “I don’t think I’ll ever watch this one,” he said. “I don’t want to go through this one again.”
Fair enough. But Dekker and his teammates should be sure to re-watch the 39 games that came before Monday night, especially the five previous ones in this tournament, because they were an amazing show. The Badgers might want to forget their last game, but the nation won’t soon forget them.
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