INDIANAPOLIS — Wisconsin put themselves on the map as a national basketball power these last two seasons as a highly-skilled veteran group with big personalities and hilarious quips. They became the team every casual fan in America rooted for during the 2015 Final Four.
Names like “Kentucky” and “Duke” bring a strong sense of distaste to many college basketball fans and it was easy to jump on the Badger bandwagon because they were likable players on and off the floor. Many college hoops fans cringe at the one-and-done era and its gone-too-soon freshman stars. Those fans could take solace in head coach Bo Ryan taking a team filled with multi-year program guys to back-to-back Final Fours.
The story of Wisconsin only became that much more riveting after the Badgers shocked previously unbeaten Kentucky by outplaying them in a national semifinal win earlier in the weekend. A sea of red converged on Indianapolis as the weekend wore on heading into Monday.
But the near-storybook run for Wisconsin came up short. It wasn’t the ending the Badgers had in mind after playing on college basketball’s biggest stage the last two seasons.
“We were one step closer to our goal [from last year]. To be so close to achieving my goal and to have it end in that fashion. It’s all [upsetting],” Wisconsin sophomore guard Bronson Koenig said.
After the national semifinal loss to Kentucky last season, Wisconsin came back for the 2014-15 season more prepared and more hungry to be the team cutting down the nets in the national title game. Senior center Frank Kaminsky elevated himself to the national player of the year while junior forward Sam Dekker made “the leap” during a great stretch of games in the 2015 NCAA tournament. Senior guards Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson and forward Duje Dukan also knew they had one more chance to finish off something truly special.
Wisconsin fell short of winning a national championship but that doesn’t mean the team — and the memories formed with this group — won’t stick with these players — and college basketball fans — for a long time.
“It’s tough to say anything right now. These guys are my family, and I mean that literally. I don’t mean that hypothetically,” Kaminsky said. “I’ve never been closer to a group of guys in my entire life, from the coaching staff on down to every single player on this team. It’s just going to be hard to say good-bye.”
Saying good-bye is going to be especially difficult for Ryan. The veteran coach recapped what made this Wisconsin group so special while also taking a swipe at the one-and-done era during the postgame press conference on Monday night. Ryan has coached some of these seniors for five seasons thanks to redshirt years and he’s become attached to the group that gave him his best teams ever.
Sophomore forward Nigel Hayes fondly calls Ryan, “Pops” and the easygoing nature of this team eased Ryan’s way with the media this season. The bitterness of coming up short came out of Ryan a little bit after the loss to Duke. Losing these veteran players is going to be tough on him after coming up just short.
“All the seniors that I’ve had — hard to say the word [good-bye],” Ryan said. “But every player that’s played through the program, okay, we don’t do a rent-a-player. You know what I mean? Try to take a fifth-year guy. That’s okay. If other people do that, that’s okay. 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 said what they wanted to do, they put themselves into that position, and they won’t forget this for a long time.”
The media gathering in the Wisconsin locker room tip-toed around the players of a losing team in typical fashion — quietly asking questions while dealing with the delicate emotions of the crushed spirits of college kids.
Dekker sat in front of his locker with his shoes off, looking at the ground and occasionally scanning the room in near shock, his eyes red like the uniform still on his back. Media went about their business interviewing other Wisconsin players as Dekker stared off into space. A media member finally approached Dekker to shake his hand. It wasn’t to ask Dekker questions about the night’s game, or the future, but just a sign of respect from reporter to player after a long season of constant communication.
Other reporters who had grown to enjoy covering the team the last few years came over to pay their respects to Dekker on the memorable two-year run. It was a unique scene in a losing locker room and Dekker handled the situation with grace as he thanked each approaching media member for covering the team.
The dream run for Wisconsin came up short, but the program earned the respect of a nation of basketball fans who enjoyed their unique blend of size and skill. A special group who made a veteran head coach loosen up his personality — and his swing offense — to adapt to the immense talents of this collection of players.
“I hope we made people around the country and around the state proud with what we did,” Koenig said.
Wisconsin could be viewed as a historical afterthought after falling short in the Final Four in back-to-back seasons, but college basketball fans won’t soon forget the talent and personality that shaped a special two-year run.