ARLINGTON, Texas – His face red and streaked with tears late Saturday, Josh Gasser stood up and walked a few paces to Wisconsin teammate Evan Anderson. The two embraced, and as they did, the 6-foot-10 Anderson dropped his head toward Gasser's shoulder and began to sob. Next to them, sophomore Duje Dukan buried his head in a warmup jersey.
All of them had more games to play in Badgers jerseys. A stunning 74-73 loss to Kentucky in a national semifinal was not their end. But the emotional scene that played out in Wisconsin's locker room approximated that feeling, and it also suggested what was to come. Only a team that feels a profound connection from one player to the next reacts that way. And from one player to the next, almost all of Wisconsin's roster can return next season and use this moment as a wrong to set right.
“This should make people pissed off and hungry going into next season, this offseason,” Badgers center Frank Kaminsky said. “We have a lot to do. We saw what we need to do in the postseason to get here, and we'll take that going forward and build on what we've accomplished this season. We want to be back here next year and we want to win a championship next year. Now that we know we can be contenders, there's nothing that's going to stop us.”
Because of how this tournament run ended, because Aaron Harrison's deep three-pointer went down for Kentucky with a little more than five seconds to play – “Thats a shot that's going to stick in all of our minds for the rest of our lives,” Kaminsky said – there will be a grieving period for a team that privately set its sights on a national championship last June. It may require weeks or a month or more, but the veteran group should return even more motivated to take home a title.
The Badgers are worthy of a top 10 preseason ranking, if not better. Senior guard Ben Brust leaves, but he is the only rotation component to go. Kaminsky, the team's leading scorer as a junior, is expected to return. Sophomore forward Sam Dekker promised Saturday that he would as well. “Yeah, I'm coming back,” he said. Gasser, who will be a fifth-year senior, and Traevon Jackson, who will be a senior, will comprise a steely veteran backcourt for 2014-15. Freshman Nigel Hayes was the Big Ten's sixth man of the year and is primed for a more significant role.
“We got a lot of guys back, we have a great group, and we have a lot of heart,” Dekker said. “When you have stuff like this taken away from you, it makes you hungrier and it makes you want it more. As a team, we have to come together again this summer and say, we felt it, now we have to go grab it. It's our turn to get it.”
The Badgers have room to improve. Kaminsky can get stronger and become a nearly unguardable 7-foot presence, and Hayes can become a more consistent producer instead of a player who showed his youth by scoring in double-digits just once in the NCAA tournament. But the most significant growth already has occurred: This March cleared the Badgers' path for next March.
“We drew out a map of success to get here,” Hayes said. “We know what we did to get here. Next year we'll have a recipe for success.”
And one game – maybe just one shot – to use as a launching pad.