ARLINGTON, Texas — Back in October, before the college basketball season began and before Wisconsin staked a claim as one of the very best programs in the nation, Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson spoke of trying to change a culture.
Anybody who’d watched Wisconsin over the past decade or so knew the culture already was pretty darn good. But Jackson, in particular, was willing to acknowledge that he wanted more. Top-four Big Ten finishes, 25 wins and a Sweet 16 appearance simply weren’t enough if the Badgers wanted to become an elite-level program.
And so, Jackson echoed a refrain Badgers football fans know quite well, one uttered by Joe Panos all those years ago before UW won a Big Ten title and reached the 1994 Rose Bowl.
Why couldn’t the Badgers basketball team do things that had never been done? Why did players have to settle for being good and not great? Why weren’t expectations just a little bit grander?
Over the next five months, Jackson and his teammates made believers out of even the most staunch of skeptics, following through on those words by putting together one of the more memorable seasons in Wisconsin basketball history.
The final image of Wisconsin’s season will be Jackson’s last-second jump shot bounding away Saturday night at the Final Four, of Kentucky players celebrating and Wisconsin players crouched on the court in disbelief after a stunning 74-73 loss. But that should not be the final takeaway.
This was a team willing to play with the same tough-nosed principles previously established by coach Bo Ryan, yet one with the talent and skill to score more points than any Badgers team Ryan ever had. The combination was enough for 30 victories, a program-record 16-game winning streak to start the season, an eight-game conference winning streak for the first time in 73 years and a Final Four appearance for the first time in 14 years.
"I’m extremely proud of them," Ryan said in the locker room Saturday night. "And I think they know that, and I think people out there know that. It ends fast and everybody wants to know about emotions. With the competitiveness of players and coaches and people that are around the team everyday, it isnât just at the end of the season or you’re bumped, you can’t say in a couple sentences what it’s all about."
Like Ryan, it was difficult for Wisconsin’s players to reflect in the losing locker room minutes after the season had ended. But players, eventually, will realize the special season they completed, which captivated a state through March and into early April.
"These guys are like brothers to me," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "I love these guys so much. We wanted to finish it off. It sucks that we didnât do it, especially for these seniors. These are guys I came in with. It’s really hard on us now. In a few weeks, we’re going to look back on this and see we did all right."
There were moments that stood out above the rest over Wisconsin’s 38-game season. Center Frank Kaminsky scored a single-game program record 43 points against North Dakota in November. Wisconsin stormed into Virginia, the eventual ACC champion, and proved to anybody in sight the Badgers’ defense wasn’t going anywhere in a 48-38 victory.
There were low moments, too, like the five losses in six games at the start of Big Ten play that had fans questioning whether the team could even reach the Sweet 16. But Wisconsin’s resiliency showed, and the Badgers rallied to win eight straight conference games. Jackson’s game-winning jumper in the waning seconds against Michigan State was among the most memorable highlights.
And then came the five-game NCAA tournament run that guaranteed this particular Wisconsin team would be remembered for quite some time.
Ben Brust broke the career 3-point record against American in the NCAA tournament opener. There was a stirring 12-point halftime comeback against Oregon in the Round of 32; a complete dismantling of Baylor’s vaunted 1-3-1 zone in the Sweet 16; an overtime win for the ages against Arizona in the Elite Eight on what would have been the 90th birthday of Ryan’s father, Butch.
There could have been a national title game appearance to further the team’s legacy. But Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison’s deep 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left cut that vision just short.
"I’m just proud of this team," Brust said afterward. "I’m proud that we made it this far. But obviously we know we’re capable of more. The kid made a clutch shot. You’ve got to give him props for that."
And props to Wisconsin on a remarkable season unlike any we’ve seen.