The Wisconsin men's basketball team may have seen its season end with a 59-55 loss to Pittsburgh in the NCAA tournament's second round Sunday, but there is no need for long faces. After working their way through a 25-7 campaign, the Badgers have many things to take away from the 2003-04 season as well as to look forward to for next year.
A third straight regular season Big Ten championship would have been ideal for Wisconsin, but the team earned the next best conference prize: the program's first-ever Big Ten tournament championship. The 25 wins were also the most in school history.
"They need a little break right now," Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. "When everything settles down I think this group will understand what they've accomplished is something a lot of people wish they could have been a part of. They did it and I'm extremely proud."
There were plenty of individual achievements as well, headlined by junior guard Devin Harris and junior forward Mike Wilkinson, who made their marks as arguably the top duo in the Big Ten. Harris' show-stopping campaign led to a unanimous selection as Big Ten player of the year and he was also a unanimous selection as the most outstanding player of the Big Ten tournament. Wilkinson earned a unanimous selection to the all-tournament team and was named second-team All-Big Ten.
Role players Boo Wade, Clayton Hanson, Ray Nixon and Andreas Helmigk all enjoyed dramatic increases in playing time this season and transfer Zach Morley quickly emerged as a top contributor, helping the team make up for injuries, most notably to forward Alando Tucker, who took a medical redshirt after a pair of right foot injuries.
After saying goodbye to the 2003-04 season, the Badgers big adieu to just three seniors. Guards Freddie Owens and Ike Ukawuba and center Dave Mader played their last game in cardinal and white Sunday.
"I thought we had some pretty decent play out of the players that we had," Ryan said. "The guys that are now finished up, Ike, Freddie and Dave, they can be extremely proud of what they were a part of while they were here and they'll continue to be a part of that because they're a part of us."
Wisconsin loses a pair of starters in Mader and Owens and could lose one of the best players in the country if Harris chooses to forego his senior season in favor of the NBA. In addition, the most likely replacements for Mader and Owens in the starting lineup—Tucker and guard Sharif Chambliss—will be coming back from injuries. Chambliss tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in practice last Tuesday.
Those contingencies will play an obvious role in the Badgers' 2004-05 fortunes, but Wisconsin should boast considerable talent on a veteran team and again enter the season as a favorite for the Big Ten championship and quite possibly for a spot in the Final Four. Harris would join Wilkinson, Hanson, Morley and Chambliss, who sat out this season after transferring from Penn State, in the senior class. Helmigk, Nixon and Wade will be juniors. In addition to Tucker, the team will also recoup forwards sophomore Jason Chappell and freshman Brian Butch after redshirt years and will watch the progression of sophomore-guard-to-be Kammron Taylor, while welcoming a talented freshman class of center Greg Stiemsma, guard Michael Flowers and guard/forward DeAaron Williams.
"The guys that are coming back, that's up to them what kind of commitment they're going to make," Ryan said. "We'll show them. We'll do the same things that we've been doing for 30 plus years. We've got some young men that keep listening and keep wanting to get better and getting ready for what's next. Now what's next is getting ready in the off season doing some things; staying in the weight room, refining some skills and then getting ready for the fall."