Thursday, March 22, 2007

Not with a bang, but a whimper

And that's that. The Badgers bumbled and stumbled their way through the first game in the NCAA Tournament and followed that up with a gag-worthy "effort" in the second round. They followed the same script in both games: run up a huge deficit, go on an improbable run to take the lead, and finish in cruise control. Beating the Islanders of Texas A&M Corpus Christi on cruise control wound up being a simple task. Doing the same against UNLV helped the Rebels win a date with the Oregon Ducks.

For all the highs this season, there were so many lows that the sum of the parts far, far exceeds the whole. Alando Tucker becomes the Badgers' all-time leading scorer? Great. The Badgers pile up the most regular-season wins they've ever had, aided by a record-breaking win streak? Fantastic. The AP dubs the Badgers the #1 team in the land for the first time ever? Let's answer that one with a question -- how many hours did it take for the Badgers to lose after that announcement? Like, 30? Just perfect.

This was supposed to be our year. We don't always get a year, but this one was supposed to be it. The Badgers' 2005-6 season left us champing at the bit; yeah, they got knocked out of the Big Dance in the first round, but they weren't even supposed to be there! This team was going to do special things next year; nobody that big was leaving, Landry and Stiemsma would play, it would be stupendous.

And it was! A lone loss to Missouri State was the only blemish on the Badgers' record for months. Alando Tucker was a beast, and most importantly, it seemed that every night a new role player would emerge with a previously-unknown skill. Flowers would work defensive magic. Bohannon would knock down energy-creating triples. Landry would flip the switch and become superhuman. Everything was falling into place.

Then, we got into February. Drew Neitzel and Greg Oden put down the #1 Badgers in consecutive games, and the Badgers entered a stagnant period that continued right through the end of the season. The Badgers, the team of destiny, watched as the Ohio State Buckeyes -- a team of freshmen -- walk away with all the awards that they knew they had the talent to win. After getting the victory in the first head-to-head game with the Buckeyes, the Badgers lost the next, getting bumped off of the inside track for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and losing the regular-season conference title in one fell swoop. Not long after, the Buckeyes were back -- the only thing standing between Wisconsin and a Big Ten Conference Tournament championship. And friends, that game was not even close.

But in March, the season begins anew. Texas A&M Corpus-Christi figured that out about 12 basketball minutes before the Badgers did; once Wisconsin decided that you shouldn't spot anyone 14 points in the NCAA Tournament, even #15 seeds, things became less interesting and Wisconsin coasted on to the round of 32 by what looked like a comfortable margin.

Then they didn't even make the Sweet Sixteen. That's what the public saw, that's what the fans care about, and that's how this team will be judged. Regular season accomplishments keep things interesting from December to February. Individual honors are a feather in the cap, but ultimately meaningless. But when you're in the Big Dance, you need to samba like nobody's watching, and the Badgers did not do that.