Wisconsin in transition as successful seniors depart
Zak Showalter and Ethan Happ walked quietly down the middle of the court, arm in arm, away from Florida's celebration of a last-second victory.
This NCAA Tournament loss is going to sting for a while for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Decorated four-year careers for Showalter and his fellow seniors ended with an 84-83 loss in overtime to the Gators in the Sweet 16. Happ, a sophomore, will carry the memory with him into next season as the next focal point for the Badgers.
The seniors ''have helped push us forward, this program forward, and it's in good hands and a good position as they exit,'' Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said early Saturday morning after the loss in New York.
What a run it was for Showalter, Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig.
The senior class amassed 115 wins, equaling the school's highest 4-year total. The foursome, along with sophomore big man Happ, formed the starting five since the start of the 2015 season.
Hayes and Koenig, in particular, have played prominent roles since their freshman seasons, when they were important reserves on a team led by Frank Kaminsky that went to the Final Four. They started as sophomores when the Badgers lost to Duke in the national title game. In tight situations, the ball was usually in the hands of either Hayes or Koenig.
Perhaps the outcome might have been different against Florida had Koenig had not been slowed by a leg cramp that limited his mobility late in the game. He was the best Badgers' shooter and facilitator.
Showalter took over that role with a desperation 3 to send the game into overtime. Brown scored 10 points for the second straight NCAA game, but fouled out against Florida.
''To have a roller coaster like this one ... man I'm still flustered right now. This one's going to hurt for a long time,'' Showalter said.
Other notes about the seniors, and a peek ahead to next season for Wisconsin:
NICE NIGEL: Hayes leaves Wisconsin as one of the most versatile players in Big Ten history. He joined former Michigan State star Steve Smith as the only league players to have 1,800 points, 700 rebounds and 300 assists in their careers.
CLUTCH KOENIG: The guard was 3 of 9 from 3-point range against Florida, finishing his Wisconsin career with a school-best 270 3s. Entering Friday's game, Koenig was shooting 50 percent from behind the arc over the final 5 minutes of regulation or overtime.
BIG MAN: The 6-foot-10 Happ was a first-team All-Big Ten pick and the AP's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Happ, who averaged 14 points and 9 rebounds, can take over a game on both ends of the floor. But Happ will need to develop a jumper and improve from the free-throw line after hitting just 50 percent of his foul shots this season. But don't doubt a third-year sophomore who spent a redshirt season learning from future NBA player Kaminsky, who had a jump in production between his sophomore and junior seasons.
RESTOCKING: Happ has discounted talk about entering the NBA draft. Assuming he returns, the Badgers will need to break in four new starters around him this fall. Experience won't be an issue, though roles will change. D'Mitrik Trice should take over one guard spot after a solid freshman campaign. Freshman Brevin Pritzl showed hustle in helping to fill in when Koenig was hampered by a calf injury during Big Ten play. Swingman Khalil Iverson has the athletic ability to keep up with taller players, grabbing eight rebounds in 33 minutes and taking over after Brown fouled out against the Gators.
NEW GUYS: The Badgers have signed what the program has said is one of its highest rated classes in school history, including two four-star recruits out of Minnesota in guard Brad Davison and 6-10 forward Nathan Reuvers. In-state recruit Kobe King has been showered with player of the year awards in Wisconsin after the athletic guard scored more than 2,000 points in his career at La Crosse Central.
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