Loss 'tough to swallow,' but Badgers future is bright
ARLINGTON, Texas—Ben Brust had just completed his 124th game in a Wisconsin uniform.
His last game at UW.
Like many of his teammates, Brust talked proudly about the satisfying journey that took UW to the Final Four, two victories from a national title.
Yet asked how long he would feel the 74-73 loss to Kentucky on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium, Brust offered a telling response without hesitation.
“Obviously I’ll remember this forever,” he said.
UW won 30 of 38 games in Bo Ryan’s 13th season as head coach. The Badgers did not win a Big Ten title. But they won their first 16 games, the best start in program history, and climbed to No. 3 in the national polls.
They reached the Final Four—the only Big Ten team to do so this season—for the first time since 2000.
There was much to savor. Yet understandably that wasn’t possible in the locker room immediately after the loss.
“I’m not going to think about that right now,” said redshirt junior guard Josh Gasser, who was sobbing when reporters were allowed in the locker room. “That’s not even on my mind. We had a chance to go to the national championship game. One-possession game. Tough to swallow. …
“I love these guys so much and we wanted to finish it off. It sucks that we didn’t do it, especially (for) these seniors.
“I don’t know. It’s kind of hard right now. These seniors. It’s your last go-round. I wanted to do it for them. It’s hard.”
The loss was the last game for Brust, who started 73 games, and reserves Zach Bohannon and Evan Anderson.
UW will return four starters—Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson and Gasser.
Kaminsky led the team in scoring (13.9 ppg). Dekker was third at 12.4 ppg, Jackson fourth at 10.7 ppg and Gasser fifth at 8.8 ppg.
Kaminsky blossomed into a first-team all-Big Ten performer. Although Kentucky limited him to seven field-goal attempts and eight points and five rebounds, he proved to be one of the best dual-threat big men in the nation.
Seeing Kaminsky so despondent in the UW locker room, it was clear the loss will drive him in the offseason.
“He said keep this one in the back of your mind,” Kaminsky said, referring to Ryan. “Keep it for the next year.”
Nothing will be guaranteed next season despite the fact UW will return four starters and key reserves Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Duje Dukan.
In addition to talent, teams need good chemistry, good health and some breaks along the way to reach the Final Four.
Hayes, limited mostly by foul trouble to two points in seven minutes in the finale, is almost certain to return a better player. He was particularly harsh when asked to assess his play against Kentucky. His combination of talent and work ethic, plus the manner in which the season ended, should help Hayes make a jump next season.
Koenig and Dukan should return better next season also. Koenig showed his ability to shoot and run the offense with 11 points in the first half when Jackson was saddled with two fouls.
Perhaps the biggest area in which he improved during his first season was the ability to shake off a mistake.
“I try to tell myself if I make a turnover or do something bad not to let it get to me,” he said. “Trae is always good at telling me to keep playing and not worry about it. I thought I improved.”
Koenig hopes to become a more vocal leader, tighten his defense and attack the rim more so he can get to the free-throw line.
Dukan provided a spark off the bench with eight points, five rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes in the finale.
“I’m the type of player who is never really satisfied,” Dukan said. “Obviously, I like the progress I made with my game, but I feel there is a lot more improvement I can show.”
His biggest weakness is a lack of consistency on defense.
“His minutes aren’t limited because his shot isn’t going in,” assistant Lamont Paris said. “It’s more being able to be mature enough … defend the right way, the way we defend. Don’t break the defensive rules.
“It’s paying attention to detail and maturing into that guy who you can count on to do the same thing every single time.”
One other question mark involves forward Vitto Brown, who received limited minutes this season. The 6-foot-8, 237-pound Brown showed flashes in practice. He should be able to perform well enough to give the staff another option in the frontcourt.
The players and coaches will have months to move past the one-point loss to Kentucky and prepare for next season.
“We had a hell of a run,” Kaminsky said. “We truly did. We were a really good team this season.
“We got to show that in this postseason run. It sucks we came up short.”