MADISON, Wis. — The group of Wisconsin basketball players that created a season for the ages assembled one final time together in their Badgers warm-up jackets Thursday night at the Kohl Center. There, they relived a magical Final Four run at the team’s annual season-ending gathering that was equal parts humorous and celebratory.
Yet amid the jokes — another Zach Bohannon and Bo Ryan selfie, Nigel Hayes dissecting the origins of his "Chocolate Tornado" move — was an eye toward the future.
With a Wisconsin team returning seven of its top eight players, most pundits already are projecting the Badgers will be a top-three team when the first national top-25 rankings are officially released in October.
"Everyone’s got to get better," said Badgers center Frank Kaminsky, who will be a senior next season. "Next year, we’re not going to be taking people by surprise. I think everyone knows that. The way I personally approach it, I approach it like I didn’t play a single minute last year. That’s the way everyone’s got to view it. We’ve got to work hard and be prepared for anything."
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, who addressed the roughly 750 people assembled at the end of the event, already was thinking ahead.
"The only thing I wanted to do after the last game was quick, wash the uniforms, put them on again and let’s play again," Ryan said. "So that’s my goal. I can’t wait until next year, until we play that first game."
Thursday’s banquet featured videos of the team’s best games, best highlight-reel plays, best moments, best images and a tribute to departing seniors Bohannon, Ben Brust and Evan Anderson. It was emceed by Shon Morris of the Big Ten Network and broken into segments in which many of the players spoke.
Kaminsky and Traevon Jackson discussed what it meant to get Ryan to the first Final Four of his coaching career at Wisconsin.
"It was great," Jackson said. "The best part about it was really getting our teammates here, too. It made film session a little bit easier. For the program in general, we came in and we had goals set from the beginning of the year for the team. It was pretty surreal for us to get there."
Wisconsin achieved several milestones this season, which were pointed out during the night. The Badgers, who went 30-8, beat seven conference champions, finished with the best road record in school history and had six Badgers named to all-Big Ten teams. They opened the season a school-best 16-0, won eight straight conference games for the first time in 73 years and reached the Final Four for the first time in 14 years, losing by one point to Kentucky in the waning seconds of the national semifinal.
With such a talented team returning, including four starters (Jackson, Josh Gasser, Sam Dekker and Kaminsky), Ryan noted some fans already were booking trips to Indianapolis for next year’s Final Four.
"It’s really interesting to hear people talk," Ryan said. "Some guy came up today and said he’s got reservations in Indianapolis. I said, ‘Oh, you’re going to the race?’ You know, they have this car race thing there (the Indianapolis 500). But you know how hard it is to accomplish what these young men just did? Do you have any idea the breaks?
"There’s been a lot of good coaches, a lot of good announcers that have never done the Final Four. A lot of good players that have never played in the Final Four. And to be able to have a chance to do that and represent an institution like this, how lucky can a guy get?"
The evening featured its share of lighthearted moments, as well. Hayes, who has developed into the team clown, said the Badgers played better this season because of how loose they were and noted loose muscles performed better than tight muscles. He added: "It’s all because we have one goal: Be like Josh Gasser. If we could all be a replica of him out there, the sky’s the limit."
Dekker, seated next to Hayes during the interview session, could only shake his head and laugh.
"It’s so hard to go after him because he always takes all the good lines," Dekker said.
Bohannon, who became somewhat of a selfie king during the Final Four by posing with Kentucky’s John Calipari, Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie, Florida’s Billy Donovan, Ryan and even former President George W. Bush, asked Ryan for one more selfie on stage Thursday night.
Responded Ryan: "OK, now they call them that because you yourself took the picture? Is that how it works? You know, they told me that Internet thing was going to catch on. I finally believe them."
As for next season, Kaminsky and Dekker — both of whom possess legitimate NBA potential — are expected to be among the team’s leaders. Kaminsky was the Badgers’ leading scorer (13.9 points) and rebounder (6.3 rebounds), was selected to the all-Big Ten first-team and earned West Region Most Outstanding Player honors in the NCAA tournament.
Dekker, meanwhile, was third in scoring (12.4 points) and second in rebounds (6.1). Dekker, who will be a junior, was asked by Morris what he wanted to improve on for next season.
"There’s a plethora of things," Dekker said. "I could go on. There’s a list 50 pages long that I can improve on and need to improve on if I want to be the type of player I want to be. All the guys on our team have that same mentality, and I think that’s what makes us pretty good is the fact that we all realize we can get better and we’re not going to be satisfied with what we have.
"I think I said that 100 times during the season that we’re not satisfied where we’re at. I still think we aren’t. This was stripped from us too quickly as we saw it. Our main goal was to win a national championship. We got close, but not quite where we want to be. And I think that’s going to be at the top of our list again."
Ryan, never missing an opportunity to sneak in a joke, later turned to Dekker and pointed out that he never actually said specifically what he would work on this offseason.
"It must be a secret," Ryan quipped, drawing laughter from the crowd.
When the night was nearly over, Ryan thanked his players for helping him get through a difficult season personally. Ryan’s mother passed away in December 2012 and his father died last August. When Wisconsin knocked off Arizona by one point in overtime of the Elite Eight, it would have been his father’s 90th birthday.
Indeed, it was a season unlike any other in Wisconsin history.
"I’m sure," Kaminsky said, "none of us are going to forget this for a long time."