Rutgers knows nothing's guaranteed for 2008

CLEVELAND -- Rutgers' Essence Carson wasn't being a pessimist. Just a realist.

Believe it or not, most of us reporters are usually trying to find a few bright spots for the losing teams during the NCAA Tournament. We'll say, "I know it's hard to do after a loss, but can you put into perspective how great this season has been?" Or we'll say, "I know it's hard to do after a loss, but aren't you looking forward to having everybody/almost everybody back next year?"

Rutgers wasn't having any of that stuff Tuesday after falling 59-46 to Tennessee in the national championship game. The Scarlet Knights don't have any seniors, so everything looks great for 2007-08, right? Not so fast.

"Once one season is over and another season begins, it starts over," Carson said. "You can have the same team and not get anything done. This is the hardest stage to come back to for any team, just because of the different competitors each and every season. As much as we grow, other teams that we go against grow. So it's definitely hard to tell, but I really do hope that we can build on this."

That's what you call real insight. It's why Carson was my favorite player to talk to this entire tournament. She was so consistently eloquent and on target, I think she needs her own advice column/TV show: "Ask Essence." You would always get great answers.

She's absolutely right, too. This year, Maryland brought back all of its key parts from a national championship season … and lost in the second round. Texas went to the Final Four in 2003 and had its crew back … but lost in the Sweet 16 in 2004 to LSU.

The Scarlet Knights should be a Final Four contender in 2008. But, as Carson said, it's hard to tell. There's no way to know for sure until we watch next season play out.

As for putting a positive spin on everything after losing to Tennessee, the Scarlet Knights weren't really up for that, either.

Carson, Kia Vaughn and Matee Ajavon came to Tuesday's postgame news conference and nobody was crying … but as coach C. Vivian Stringer's "opening statement" went on, you could see the players truly deflating. What had happened was really hitting them.

"I know that this whole experience is something that they will never forget," Stringer said. "But I'll always know that we [were] just that close. … But I don't want to put such a damper on it that it defines us and we're nothing."

It's certainly understandable how disappointed Stringer must be. She has been a college coach since 1971, and has made four trips to the Final Four now without a title. She knows as well as anyone that for most coaches, these chances don't come around too often.

Still, her overall tone -- with her players sitting beside her -- somehow seemed too downcast to me. Yeah, yeah, I know, winning is supposedly everything. But I don't agree with that. Rutgers didn't win the last game, but the Scarlet Knights were the best team in this tournament other than the champions.

Starting in the Big East tournament, Rutgers went on a run that speaks to how hard the Scarlet Knights were willing to play and how much they believed in themselves. They had to come a long, long way in the few short months of this season. As a No. 4 seed, they had to navigate a very hard road just to have a shot at the title.

The fact that they didn't win Tuesday is not what will stick with me about the 2007 Scarlet Knights. Rather, it's the fact that they were playing Tuesday.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.