Lewis: Embracing What Is

It may not have ended like anyone planned, but then most things never do

CHICAGO – The Badgers could have boxed out more effectively in the first half. They could have attacked the lane every time down in the double bonus before halftime. They could have made more threes. They could have covered Curtis Terry on his.

The Badgers could have played five big men or five guards. They could have shot one-handed or left-handed or short-handed or hot-handed. They could have banged Wendell White on the ribs or ribbed Kevin Kruger on his bangs.

They could have done a lot of things. But they did what they did. That should be enough.

"Things a lot of times don't fall in place like you want it," said Alando Tucker following his final game in a Wisconsin uniform. "But like I said, I'm still overall, I look down the line at some of the things we've done and I wouldn't take anything back."

The coach whose team ended Tucker's collegiate career, Lon Kruger, proved to be not only a tremendous play-caller, but a class act as well.

The former showed when Kruger wisely drew up an option to allow Terry to deliver a final dagger through isolation with Jason Bohannon. But the latter came through when Kruger pulled Tucker aside after the game to tell him how much he enjoyed watching the Badger grow as a player. Kruger then wished Tucker good luck in whatever may cross his path.

The coach had it precisely correct. This group should be told precisely what Kruger told Tucker: it was a joy.

Time for second-guessing should be past. Disappointment is, for the great majority of teams, inevitable. And while the "what if" can consume us, the "what is" should be embraced.

Wisconsin lost on Sunday to a team that played a complete game and played it better than its opponent. The Badgers won 30 themselves before losing this one. And although easier said than done, this loss must be viewed through a wider lens.

"As seniors you have a feeling of frustration, disappointment," Tucker said. "But I wouldn't change anything that happened this whole season. I've had fun in the journey that I've been able to be a part of, with myself and Kam to do some of the things we've done over the course of a season."

"I'm happy about the things that I've been a part of here at Wisconsin," he went on to say.

It seems unfair that 20 minutes after Tucker's career came to an end on the United Center parquet, two more teams took to it as if he were never there.

"It's a basketball game," Coach Kruger aptly said of it. "And it will be forgotten very quickly by most people. But those that experience it and those that go through it, they won't forget. And they'll recall it. And they'll recall it with a smile." Of course, the three seniors who said goodbye on this Windy City Sunday will remember all of it.

Jason Chappell – quiet, easy-going, quick to do whatever is asked of him – occupied his locker room corner that after so many recent Chicago games might feel like a second home.

Kammron Taylor – his own biggest critic, his heart all but bleeding through his jersey, used every ounce of remaining energy to hold back more tears, seated between his coach and the recent face of the entire Badger athletic department.

Yes, Tucker, as always, kept it together in the face of disappointment. Alando Tucker is a great many things, but perhaps most obviously, he is truly a man.

"If they can't admire a guy like Alando Tucker and what he's been through and what he's done, man they don't have a pulse," Ryan said. "I think Alando makes a huge statement for the University of Wisconsin."

Alando Tucker is a man of principle and dedication, of loyalty and empathy, of both pride and humility.

He can walk the line between self-confidence and respect for others more gracefully than anyone. Find an instance of Tucker the critic or Tucker the blame shifter and you would likely be the first.

And it is no coincidence that the most prolific hoopster in school history competes for its most honorable as well. After all, Tucker the player and Tucker the person are one and the same – a true product of reaping what one sews.

We sometimes lose sight of the fact that sixty-five teams enter the NCAA Tournament, each with stories of their own. Most of those teams have seniors who will encounter disappointment. Some of them might even resemble a Tucker or a Taylor or a Chappell.

Their own programs have lofty goals, as well as student-athletes of character and long roads traveled. Some of those roads might even parallel Wisconsin's.

Down the sideline from Bo's bunch on Sunday was a team nearly 15 years in the making. It is a group featuring a coach who has guided the resurrection of a program through the senior leaders that have realized his vision.

Kruger's own son used his remaining year of eligibility to transfer from Arizona State and play for his father's team. When Kevin Kruger broke his ice-cold streak from beyond the arc to lead the game-winning rally over the Badgers, Dad was all smiles.

That is a story that has been told and will certainly be rehashed in the days to come. But like Tucker's words without regret, the Krugers' victory was not the point.

"It's just not an opportunity that most seniors get to go through," Kevin said. "And wins or losses are irrelevant to the experience I've gone through this year."

If we've learned anything from Old Spice ads, it's that experience is everything. The wins and losses might be somewhat relevant – they certainly will look good in the history books – but the memories of past experiences are all we are left with at the end of the day.

I entered the post-game session trying to pinpoint what went wrong against the Runnin' Rebels. But even non-team members can use what is referred to in the tournament as the "cooling off period."

I thought about the two years I spent with this bunch and the honor I felt in seeing them grow. I considered the luck I had to spend these impressionable times in my life around a group of individuals like these Badgers – a group that has never been less than accommodating.

That starts with senior leadership. And as I and others awaited the arrival of Tucker and Taylor for one last postgame conference, I realized the fact that my recent graduation and pending career shift might make this the last chance I would ever have to describe "what was" and "what is" with a team like this. "What if?" is irrelevant.

"And that's all I want my players to do is say that they had the chance," Ryan said. "And I think this group took advantage of a lot of chances and did some really good things.

"But you always want more."

Yes, you always do. The Badger faithful will just have to settle for this.

It wasn't a bad deal. Not by a longshot.

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