Wisconsin's Best Not Quite Enough to Down Kentucky, but Badgers' Future Glimmers

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Wisconsin's Best Not Quite Enough to Down Kentucky, but Badgers' Future Glimmers
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The travesty of the NCAA tournament is that 67 teams will inevitably fail to reach their goal. While we're worried about our silly bracket pools, 20-year-old kids are making the sometimes cross-country trek back to campus, crushed by the thought of what could have been.

Wisconsin has no reason to be ashamed, though.

The Badgers had an incredible season and an equally phenomenal tournament run. Save for a couple of weeks at the end of January, they were one of the best teams in the entire country from day one.

They just had the misfortune of going up against the team that refuses to go home. Kentucky has been on the ropes in every game in this tournament, but keeps finding ways to out-rebound its opponents just enough to win.

Tony Gutierrez

Despite getting Julius Randle's worst rebounding performance in more than two months, the Wildcats still grabbed at least 10 offensive rebounds for the eighth consecutive game. Dakari Johnson grabbed five offensive rebounds while Frank Kaminsky was able to corral just one ball on the defensive end of the court.

In a game decided by just one point in the final seconds, that was enough to make a difference.

As Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan told Tracy Wolfson outside the locker room after the game, "Kentucky was a little stronger, a little tougher inside on the glass. It never comes down to one possession in a basketball game. There are a lot of things that happen out there where we could've maybe changed something.

"I'm just proud of the way they played and the way they handled themselves."

He's right. The game didn't come down to one possession.

It came down to six Kentucky possessions early in the second half.

After a Sam Dekker three-pointer gave Wisconsin a 43-36 lead, John Calipari called a timeout and said the magic words to wake the sleeping giant. Over the next four minutes, Kentucky went on a 15-0 run, grabbing all eight of the rebounds on both ends of the court during that stretch.

Yes, Wisconsin stormed back to regain the lead, but it was fools' gold against a team that suddenly remembered it had the athleticism to destroy anyone in the paint.

If both teams had played up to their full athletic potential all game, Kentucky would've won by no fewer than 25 points. For the Wildcats, we're talking about five players who were ranked among the top nine of all incoming freshmen this season. And, oh by the way, they also had Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee coming off the bench.

If you were playing pick-up basketball and the 10 players in the starting lineups for these teams showed up, there's no question that all five Kentucky players would be among the first six selected, with Kaminsky maybe going in the top five simply because he's a giant.

Regardless of what seeds these teams were given by the selection committee, it's pretty incredible that Bo Ryan had his Badgers within one shot of besting the beast that is Kentucky to advance to the championship game.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

But chin up, Badgers fans. This is merely the first year in what should be an amazing two-year ride.

For you see, just about everyone on this year's team is coming back next year.

Without a doubt, Ben Brust will be missed. The senior shooting guard was the team's second-leading scorer this season, and will graduate after having scored 1,123 points for the Badgers over the last three seasons.

But we got a glimpse of the future on Saturday night, and the future is bright. Bronson Koenig is only a freshman, but he played like a senior in the first half against Kentucky.

It eventually became abundantly clear that he is just a freshman, however. He took a few ill-advised "heat check" shots and had a couple of poor turnovers, but those are coachable errors. Brust may be leaving, but that Wisconsin backcourt is still in good hands.

Among other returning players, both Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky told ESPN's Jeff Goodman after the game that they'll (wisely) forego the NBA draft and return for another year.

Presumably, Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser and surprising-source-of-eight-points-on-Saturday Duje Dukan will be back for their senior seasons. Chances are certainly good that Nigel Hayes will be back for his sophomore year, as well.

That's one heck of a seven-man rotation for the Badgers. And that doesn't even include Wisconsin's likely diamond in the rough. Jackson was just a 2-star recruit in the 2011 class and played a mere 5.4 minutes per game in his freshman season. Just look at how far he's come and tell me that Vitto Brown couldn't follow the same career arc.

Will Wisconsin compare athletically to the rotations that schools like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina will be putting on the court for the 2014-15 season? Not even close.

But did that stop the Badgers from getting to the national semifinals this year?

Despite 704 career wins, this was Bo Ryan's first trip to the Final Four. It took him 15 years as a D-I head coach to get to this point.

With just a dash of slow-tempo luck, he'll be right back there again in 12 months.

 

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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