Wisconsin and Michigan State each exited the tournament in the round of 16 on Friday night. Each team can look back on their defeat as a missed opportunity, both for different reasons.
If anyone had said prior to the season that Wisconsin would break the 30-win barrier, capture the Big Ten title, win the conference tournament and then survive the first weekend of the NCAA, they might have been fitted for a straitjacket. The Badgers were rebuilding after the loss of Alando Tucker, and an early blowout loss at Duke, followed by a home loss to archrival Marquette seemed to validate that belief. But UW turned it on and enjoyed an outstanding season. Had they lost to #2-seed Georgetown in a hard-fought game on Friday, there would have been no reason for regrets.
But even giving Davidson all the credit they deserve after their wins over the Hoyas & Badgers, followed up by a near-miss yesterday against Kansas, it's still a major disappointment when you play a 10th-seeded team from a non-BCS conference in a regional semifinal and don't cash it in. It's an opportunity that means the bracket is breaking your way. And Wisconsin not only missed the chance to do so, they didn't even show up. Davidson beat UW to loose balls and long rebounds from the outset, and even had Stephen Curry not shot the lights out with an unconscious performance from downtown, the Badgers did not look ready to step up and take this game. Michael Hunt of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writes that Davidson was simply better, but while such is gracious, it's not necessarily accurate.
When the dust settles on this season over the next couple weeks, Wisconsin's extraordinary achievments will be what ultimately shines forth. But at least for a little while, Badger fans can't be blamed if they suffer a little melancholy depression over the lost opportunity.
Michigan State had its doors blown off by Memphis. Getting beat up by a #1 seed that's lost only one game and who put another whipping on Texas yesterday, isn't cause for shame per se. What the Spartans have to be upset about is that no one around the country was particularly surprised that it happened. This was a year of great expectation in East Lansing, as they were the top-heavy favorite in the Big Ten and expected to compete for the national championship. And they didn't exactly collapse, winning big non-conference games and staying on the outskirts of the conference title race, including a huge thumping of Indiana when the Hoosiers were still a viable contender. But at every point when they could have fulfilled their legitimate expectations, they couldn't seal the deal. Bad losses at Iowa & Penn State cost them a conference title. They dropped a tough one to Wisconsin in the league tournament semis. And on Friday they completed the trifecta by missing a chance to oust a #1 seed and restore themselves to glory.
Drew Sharp of The Detroit Press says that by any reasonable measurement, Tom Izzo still has an elite program. And Sharp is right. MSU missed an opportunity for a big year this year, but it would be foolish to write them off for 2009, when the Final Four comes to The Motor City.