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April 6, 2014

Coping with a loss





ARLINGTON, Texas - It was strange, weird, and frankly just wrong. A Wisconsin locker room that had frequently been home to scenes that rivaled the fun times of "Animal House" throughout the season suddenly had as many laughs in it as "Armageddon."

To put into words the emotions of Wisconsin's locker room following the team's 74-73 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats in the National Semifinal of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night would be a daunting task even for William Shakespeare himself.

Following the NCAA-required 10-minute cooling down period between the end of the game and the opening of the locker room to the media, there were no players checking their text messages from friends and family congratulating them on a big victory, nor were there any post-game antics being performed by freshman and resident team-clown Nigel Hayes. No, for on this night, the post-game festivities, if one could call them that, including senior Evan Anderson sobbing loudly on the shoulders of his teammate Duje Dukan before being comforted by a tearful Josh Gasser.

All with the cameras and voice recorders on, for there was no stopping the raw emotions from coming out.

Naturally, the first few minutes of media availability were filled with each individual battling his or her inner voices fighting over whether to respect the privacy of the 16 young men aged 18-23 who had just seen an opportunity to play in the national championship game slip through their fingers or to put cameras in their faces in order to get a story.

The silence of the situation - one described by freshman Vitto Brown as, "total silence except for the audible crying" - was eventually broken and the Badgers tried their best to put their thoughts and emotions just moments after being so close from the program's first trip to the national championship game since 1941.

"We were really excited when the season started because we had a special feeling about this team and now that the season is over," Dukan said, "It's tough to swallow."

"The big deal is that you're so close to making history, you're one possession away from playing for the national championship and now anything can happen," assistant coach Gary Close said. "That's what hurts. You just don't know how many opportunities you're going to get."

With the Badgers returning seven of their top eight rotation players next season, assuming Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky stay true to their word of returning to campus next season instead of leaving early for the NBA, the likelihood of Wisconsin getting another opportunity deep in the tournament next season is high.

What hurts the most about Saturday night's loss for the 2013-14 Wisconsin Badgers is that it brings to an end one of the best years in the lives of all 16 student-athletes and the entire coaching staff.

"It's more than basketball," Traevon Jackson said when asked what this team is about and why the Kentucky loss hurts. "If we win the national championship then that's something we haven't done here [since 1941]. It was something we wanted to do for each other."

Bo Ryan was asked about the loss of his father, Butch, and whether or not he felt his father's presence out on the court. Ryan responded by saying that loss is a part of life but he has other family in his life - his children, grandchildren and his team.

And that's what this Wisconsin team is - a Wisconsin family.

"I don't really know what words I can really put to describe it, but it's just special. It's a special bond," Dekker said of the bond between he and his teammates. "I fully presume that come Monday we'll all be in the gym together for some reason."

For the seniors, like Zach Bohannon, who are moving on and won't suit up for the Badgers again, the experience of being on this team has been once in a lifetime.

"I've been a part of a lot of special teams on and off the court in my entire life and this is definitely one that ranks up near the top if not the top," Bohannon said. "It's been an honor being in the same locker room as some of these guys…I wouldn't trade it for the world."

While it may be too raw for the team to realize now and it may take some time to let the loss sink in before they are able to appreciate the season, but the Wisconsin Badgers may have accomplished things on and off the court this season more valuable than wins, points or rebounds.

This year's Wisconsin Badgers changed the culture of Wisconsin basketball.

"We didn't win the Big Ten regular season title, the Big Ten tournament title or the NCAA Tournament championship so that definitely stings," Bohannon said. "But then again, we feel like we've taken the program to the next step where we've broke that glass ceiling that was held above our heads."

Part of "that glass ceiling" above Wisconsin's head coming into the season was that they couldn't win game scored above the 50s - they broke that mold by winning games in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 100s this season. Part of "that glass ceiling" above Wisconsin's head coming into the season was that they couldn't make it past the Sweet 16 and even if they did, it was Elite 8 at best - they broke that mold by advancing to the Final Four.

Jackson, the most outspoken Badgers player when it came to talking about changing the culture, felt the team accomplished their goal of changing Wisconsin basketball and how it is perceived around the country. (Although I wouldn't expect the Badgers to suddenly take the one-and-done approach to recruiting).

Where Jackson was hard on himself and the team was in evaluating their bigger goal for the season: winning the national championship.

"I think we gave it our all," Jackson said. "We tried, but we failed. We didn't finish the task we had, the assignment, and that was to win the national championship."

Judging the success of a season moments after a heart-wrenching loss that could only be compared to the Hickory Huskers falling in the state championship to the South Bend Central Bears is an almost impossible task. And while all of the Badgers would trade anything in the world for the chance to play in Monday night's national championship game, some realize just how much they accomplished this season.

"We made a Final Four and not many teams get to do that," Dukan said. "I think that's definitely something we should hang our hat on and moving forward I think it's something that is going to prepare us for the future hoping that we can make this run again."

"This year was a great year. It's the most fun I've ever had as a part of a team," Kaminsky said. "We had great team play. We got punched and punched back the whole season. We showed flashed of how great we can be, and I think that will mean a lot for us next year."

And that's the question facing the Badgers now: How good can they be next season?

There's no reason to believe they won't be back in the Final Four conversation as they'll be as talented and motivated as ever. If Wisconsin finds itself back in the Final Four next season in Indianapolis, the team won't be ale to help themselves from thinking of this season as a successful one for building a hunger, a passion and a drive greater than anything else they have experienced in their entire lives.

"When stuff like this is taken away from you it makes you hungry and makes you want it more," Dekker said. "We felt it, now we've got to go grab it. It's our turn to go get it."

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow Zack on Twitter.


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