It's been two days now. Two days since Quincy Pondexter walked right to the rack and scored that heartbreaking bucket. Two days since Lazar Hayward's half court attempt at an NCAA Tournament miracle went begging. Two days since my TV remote paid the ultimate price for my tournament disappointment. Theoretically, I should be coming out of my funk by now, right? Then why do I still feel so crappy? I can't remember any previous tournament losses hitting me quite this hard. Even that shot to the balls that Brook Lopez gave us in 2008 didn't linger quite this long. We all said, "Everything from here is gravy." Marquette had exceeded expectations by leaps and bounds. I should be able to step back, look at the season and say "Damn, that was a helluva year." But for some reason, I'm just not ready. Why? Why does this loss still hurt so damn much?
I think a big part of it is there is no built in excuse this year. Last year, the injury to Dominic James changed everything. We had been eyeing a potential Final Four run until our most important player went down. That made the Missouri loss, heartbreaking though it was, far easier to swallow. We could say "If we would've had a healthy James, we would've rolled these guys." It was similar in 2007. Losing McNeal right before the tournament put us at a disadvantage right away. Then of course we played Michigan St. and Crean pissed down his leg when he saw his Master Yoda on the opposing bench. But the McNeal injury definitely played a part. In 2008, we had the worst possible draw that we could have imagined when we got Stanford in the 2nd round. We were a team with very limited inside presence, playing a team with 2 future first round pick 7-footers. And we damn near beat them. It took a miracle shot, by a guy that would be a top 10 pick in the NBA draft to beat us. There was something of a moral victory component there that took a little bit of the sting out of it. This year, there is no such component. We were playing well and we got a draw that we felt we could handle - not just in round 1 but looking all the way ahead to the Elite 8.
This loss was in the first round. The past two years we've gotten our hearts broken in the second round, which is better. At least it allowed us the ability to say we at least won 1 game, and lost to a higher seeded team. A first round loss, with no built in excuse to cushion the blow, to a lower seeded team (even if every team seeded 6 to 11 is basically equal) is a tough pill to swallow.
Then there's the fact that we had the lead this year. In previous years Marquette had gotten down big early, rallied back only to come up short. Somehow this hurts a little bit less than this year's scenario: build a double-digit second half lead only to watch the opponent come roaring back to take it from us. Ouch.
Also, after this year there are more questions than there are answers. In years past, we could try and deflect the blow somewhat by saying, "We'll be back." We were spoiled by the 4 years of the 3 Amigos. We could always bank on them being here the next year and being even better than they were last year. This year, one thing we knew for sure was we had Lazar Hayward, and he's a stud. Everything else was up in the air, but we knew, at least we had Zar. Next year, we'll have Jimmy Butler and DJO as our main guys. While I like both of these guys, I don't have quite the confidence in them that I did in Lazar coming into this year.
But I think the main factor that has made the hangover of this loss so tough to shake, is that I believed. If we had learned anything about this team over the course of the season, it was to expect the unexpected. I really felt that this was the year to make a run. No expectations, no pressure, battle hardened, this team was the one that would get us out of the first weekend. It would have been the perfect ending to this year, and I genuinely believed it was going to happen. Of course, it did not happen that way. And I've got no excuse, no bad draw, no valiant comeback, and no "wait ‘til next year" attitude to focus on. All I can focus on is Quincy Pondexter banking it home, and the gut-punch feeling that I just can't seem to shake.