Prior to his team's Elite Eight victory over Arizona and a second consecutive berth in the Final Four, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan interrupted a jovial exchange with the media on Friday afternoon to reflect.
From the dais in Los Angeles, Ryan's thoughts returned to his time coaching Division III Wisconsin-Platteville -- where he won four Division III national titles during a 15-year stint -- and he began to discuss a game he'll never forget.
Ryan relayed a story of how Platteville's 34-game winning streak on its home floor came to an end in a 100-86 loss in the 1993 Division III tournament quarterfinals. Ryan's team lost to Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois), and even though he couldn't remember the name of the opposing team's star player (it was Kirk Anderson) who scored 41 points, including a dozen 3-pointers, he still felt the effect of the loss.
"I ran two or three different defenders at a guy who made 3-point shots sideways, falling backwards," Ryan recalled as he illustrated the various angles of Anderson's field goals. "I was waiting for him to head one in. A kid from Augustana in Illinois. He had like 43 or something, and that was '93. ... But that was a very frustrating evening."
Sure, Ryan has multiple Div. III rings and now, two trips to the Final Four at the Division I level, but those tough postseason losses often linger for years. Notable coaches decorate their offices with the trophies and plaques that offer proof of their achievements. On occasion, they even wear their bulky championship rings as portable display cases for the grandiose moments of their decorated tenures.
They do not, however, clear space on their shelves to commemorate their heartbreaking postseason losses, which dawdle in their memories like a plastic bottle in a landfill. Those images just sit there.
The Final Four and the NCAA tournament action that preceded it created highs for many. And it also doled out the lows that ultimately prompt some of the game's best coaches to reminisce and wonder.
"Well, I don't hate Christian Laettner, OK?" Louisville coach and former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino joked about the Duke star and subject of a "30 for 30" film, who hit a last-second shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight. "So I didn't watch that well-documented program that [ESPN] did. But that probably sticks out. I would say we had Arizona beat for a back-to-back championship [in 1997] and one of my favorite players of all time, Nazr Mohammed, missed seven free throws in overtime and I haven't spoken to him since that. No, I'm only kidding. Nazr is a close friend. But those two games stick out because I had an option and I didn't take the option. The doctor cleared Derek Anderson to play and he wanted to play. He practiced two unbelievable days and I made the decision not to play him. So, that probably sticks out because Miles Simon, who is working, I think, in college basketball right now, had an unbelievable game. Derek would have checked him and Miles wouldn't have scored. Make sure you tell him that."
Ben Jacobson's Northern Iowa squad shocked the world with a victory over Kansas in the second round of the 2010 NCAA tournament. Ali Farokhmanesh's 3-pointer sealed history for the Panthers. That's the greatest postseason moment of Jacobson's tenure thus far. Sometimes, however, he gets stuck on that 59-52 loss to Michigan State in the Sweet 16 the following weekend.
"The Michigan State game does [eat at me] a little bit," Jacobson said. "Just because we were up at halftime and we had a team that obviously, I guess, if you're that far -- if you're in the Sweet 16 -- we all feel like we're going to get to the Final Four once you get to that point. But that team, boy, that team felt like we were going to the Final Four. It was, man, they ... nothing was enough for that team. So that was a hard one because we had the right pieces, we had size at center and we had a great defender at power forward. We had a terrific point guard. Couple shooters to go with it and we had a good bench. So we had what you needed. So that one, because you're that close, right, that one sticks with me. No doubt."
March Madness is sweet. And March Madness is equally cruel.
Arizona suffered its second consecutive Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin on Saturday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. So Sean Miller's pursuit of his first Final Four appearance continues.
Miller analyzed last season's loss to Wisconsin in the pregame buildup to Saturday's game. A late, controversial offensive foul call on Nick Johnson still bothers him. Saturday's loss to the same Badgers team will only compound the gloom.
It all seems unfair for a man who's still irked by the final chapter of Arizona's 65-63 Elite Eight loss to eventual champion Connecticut in 2011.
"Playing UConn a few years ago, we didn't have one shot to win the game, we actually had two," Miller said. "And I thought the second one in particular is that one you see all the time where it's an offensive rebound. It's a broken play. It's a kickout. That's usually the one that wins the game, and it didn't."
Mark Few understands. This season, the coach earned his first trip to the Elite Eight and his school's first Elite Eight appearance since 1999, but Gonzaga had been criticized in past years for early exits. Few has felt that heat, but he also questions the role injuries played in some of those games.
In 2013, top-seeded Gonzaga lost to Wichita State in the second round after Gary Bell suffered a foot injury. Kevin Pangos was hindered by an ankle injury during Gonzaga's loss to Arizona in the second round of last season's NCAA tournament.
Few made no excuses for either loss. But that won't stop him from wondering, and wishing.
"I felt like last year's team did as good a job as any I've probably ever coached at hitting their ceiling of what they were capable of," Few said. "Four minutes into the game, Pangos goes down with an ankle injury. And when you're playing somebody like Arizona, that's not a good thing. So, other than that, obviously the Wichita [State] one was disappointing."
So much success, but the stains still sting, though.
And retirement does not end the nudges.
The morning Arkansas lost to UCLA in the 1995 national title game, Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson accepted the USBWA's Most Courageous Award. It was eight years after he'd lost his 15-year-old daughter, Yvonne, to leukemia. The ceremony included pictures and a video of Yvonne, images that sapped Richardson.
"It just took everything out of me," Richardson said.
Richardson blames himself for the Razorbacks' loss to the Bruins, just a year after winning the national championship in 1994.
He'd always been known as the fiery type, a motivator. But he just didn't have it that day.
The Razorbacks lost that game 20 years ago. Richardson left Arkansas in 2002.
He's enjoying retirement, but the memories of that loss? Well, they're stubborn.
"You constantly have that on your mind," Richardson said. "You think about how close you were. ... It was right there."
Ryan knows too well. His Platteville squad was the No. 1 team in Division III when it lost to Augustana College in the 1993 NCAA tournament's Elite Eight because Kirk Anderson couldn't miss. Wouldn't miss.
"If you're on the left-hand side [of the final score] and some guy got 30 and your team was successful, that guy can go talk in any restaurant and tell everybody how many he had, but still, it's the team score that matters," Ryan said.
"The problem was [Anderson] had  and we lost."