After dinner on Saturday night in Jacksonville, I went back to my hotel room to catch the final period of Andrew Howe's national championship winning match against Penn State's Dan Vallimont. As the match was winding down, the national TV crew was interviewing Head Coach Barry Davis, who was gracious enough to answer some questions while urging his sophomore athlete to finish the job. Howe did, winning his 37th match in 37 attempts, helping his team to a fourth-place finish in the NCAAs, which ties the best performance in UW history. Meanwhile, Davis earned national Coach of the Year honors.
The best part of the telecast occurred moments after Howe won the title, when Davis was overcome with emotion, and the normally all-day-tough wrestling coach broke down and cried. It was great theatre involving a champion University of Wisconsin student-athlete, and his very dedicated coach who might be as well-liked by his fellow UW coaches as anyone on campus.
In Jacksonville, there were tears of a different sort. What makes the NCAA basketball tournament special is also what makes it painful. Once again, there are great stories being told. Fans are learning about Northern Iowa, St. Mary's and Cornell. Four years ago George Mason was the darling of the tournament. Two years ago it was Davidson. They are the type of programs that can make March so magical, unless you are on the other side.
Such is the case with the Badgers this March. The simple fact of the matter is Cornell is better. That can be hard to accept for those of us who rarely, if ever, see the Big Red play. I just keep thinking of a line that Bo Ryan has said a thousand times--just because a team doesn't play on TV very often doesn't mean it can't play. Cornell can play, as can St. Mary's and Northern Iowa. Just ask Villanova coach Jay Wright, or Kansas boss Bill Self.
As for the Badgers, it will be interesting to see what is next. They say so long to seniors Jason Bohannon and Trevon Hughes, who leave with a UW record-tying 105 wins. They have made big plays that fans should remember for a long time. Now it is someone else's turn. Who will it be? This figures to be an extremely important off-season for all the returning players, especially the likes of Rob Wilson, Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Wquinton Smith.
At the moment, it would appear the team's backcourt depth is taking a significant hit. That is why I listed Smith, the walk-on from Milwaukee who has been a superb scout team player. Now he knows there could be minutes available to him next season. Wilson's playing time varied this winter, but now is the time for the junior-to-be to make the jump from reserve to regular rotation contributor. Bruesewitz and Evans can bring instant energy. Evans' play in Sunday's game was very encouraging. An athletic yet raw talent, he has the ability to create highlight reel plays. The scrappy nature of Bruesewitz's game is something any coach loves and opposing teams hate. As he develops his offensive skills, Bruesewitz's future looks quite promising. What the incoming freshmen will bring is anybody's guess, but any immediate help will be greatly appreciated.
When the basketball preseason magazines come out next fall, it will be interesting to see where the analysts predict Wisconsin will finish. My guess is middle of the pack in the Big Ten. More often than not, that seems to be the safe pick. Remember this year's team was supposed to finish in seventh place, and perhaps be left out of the NCAA field. They whiffed on that call, didn't they?
Yes, the season ended too early. It wasn't pretty on Sunday in Jacksonville, and it is ok to be disappointed. However, the early tournament exit does not erase what has been a very good year, which included thrilling victories against national title contenders such as Duke, Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue.
Those thoughts alone should make Badger fans eager for next season.