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Badgers’ Final Four run will be remembered

Marques Eversoll , Sports Editor, Commentary
April 8, 2014
Filed under Sports

The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team–in its third Final Four in program history–came within a single point of a National Championship berth. Kentucky freshman Aaron Harrison’s cold-blooded three over Josh Gasser with 5.6 seconds remaining closed the book on arguably Wisconsin’s most successful season in 73 years.

But despite the sting the Badgers and their fans will feel in the near future, this team won’t soon be forgotten.

Wisconsin basketball isn’t Alabama football. The Badgers aren’t measured by National Championships. In time, the 2013-14 Badgers will be remembered as head coach Bo Ryan’s first Final Four team, not the team that lost to Kentucky.

The last time the Badgers made a Final Four came in 1999-2000, an improbable run led by head coach Dick Bennett.

As great as that run was–for an excitable then-nine-year-old kid like me–those Badgers were just happy to be there. And they should have been satisfied, considering they were the definition of “underdogs” against Tom Izzo, Mateen Cleaves and the Michigan State juggernaut that went on to win it all in Indianapolis, Ind.

And Badgers fans still remember that team, if not for anything else, for being the school’s only team to appear in the Final Four since World War II. Wisconsin’s lone National Championship came during the 1940-41 season.

But this year’s Badgers team was different than the Cinderella 1999-2000 team that made it to the Final Four as a No. 8 seed. Ryan’s team belonged in the Final Four.

No disrespect to Bennett’s bunch of Mike Kelley, Andy Kowske, Jon Bryant and Mark Vershaw, but they weren’t Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Ben Brust and Josh Gasser. They just weren’t.

For Ryan, who led his team to a NCAA Tournament appearance in each of his first 12 seasons at Wisconsin, a deep run into March was the only thing missing from his resume.

The 13th edition of Bo’s Badgers rode a 26-win regular season into March Madness as a No. 2 seed in the West region. While the regional finals would be played in Anaheim, Cali., the Badgers earned an opportunity to play in state for their first two games against No. 15 seed American, then No. 7 seed Oregon in the Round of 32.

Wisconsin routed American by 40 points March 20, then overcame a 12-point halftime deficit against Oregon two days later to punch its ticket into the Sweet 16. The Badgers beat down a red-hot Baylor team 69-52 March 27 to earn a spot in the regional final against top-seed Arizona.

In one of the most entertaining games of the tournament, the Badgers needed overtime to beat the Wildcats 64-63 March 29 to punch their ticket to their third Final Four in school history.

Wisconsin had Kentucky on the ropes with a National Championship berth on the line, but ultimately, Kentucky’s star-studded freshmen Julius Randle, James Young and the Harrison Twins led the Wildcats past the Badgers by one point.

Will we look back at this team and wonder what might have been, had they won and earned a date against Connecticut in the National Championship? Sure.

But will we reflect on this season 10 years from now and consider it a disappointment? Heck no.

This was, without question, one of the best seasons in program history. They won 30 games and proved to the national audience that they belonged on the big stage. And by the way, the Badgers returns four starters next year.

The future is bright for Bucky. Maybe someday, Wisconsin will be judged by National Championships. Only time will tell.