As basketball season approaches, there’s one thing almost every fan in Madison can count on: Not much will be expected of Bo Ryan’s squad this season.
Every year, it seems, the Badgers are expected to be outside the Big Ten title race. Yet somehow, Ryan’s magical swing offense continually guides them to the NCAA tournament. Every year, analysts don’t see how a team without any big-time recruits or returning star players could achieve any success. Love it or hate it, the key to this success is Ryan’s signature scheme.
Debates constantly surround the program regarding whether the oft-criticized system is truly the best choice for the UW program, as the Badgers often hit a wall when March Madness arrives. Having reached three Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight under Ryan, haters point to the fact that Ryan can’t take the team to the next level, that the Badgers will forever remain a consistent squad that can’t step up their game when it counts.
But, as the program continues to garner national attention and begins to pick up more talented recruits, it’s only a matter of time before Wisconsin is back in the Elite Eight and Final Four. The Badgers seemed to have a perfectly paved road for an Elite Eight or maybe even a Final Four run in last year’s tournament, but they only fed into critics by falling to Butler (possibly the only team in NCAA basketball that overachieves more than the Badgers).
The swing offense — known for its slow pace and limited offensive production — is often credited with UW rarely picking up the recruits that will allow the Badgers to make a similar breakthrough as the much talked about football program.
While highly touted in-state players, including Vander Blue (take solace in the fact that he averaged 5.4 points per game last year) and J.P. Tokoto, have decided to take their talents to places other than the Kohl Center, Ryan and Co. have locked down a top talent for next season in Sam Dekker. The four/five star small forward out of Sheboygan, Wis., is ranked as the 26th-best player in the nation by ESPN and the 18th by Rivals, evidence that Ryan’s system can attract the best players in the state to Madison.
While the system is by no means flashy and makes for understandably boring games to ACC and Big East fans, getting a commit from Dekker could reverse the trend. On top of Dekker, the Badgers recently received a verbal commitment from standout guard Bronson Koenig, a point guard who turned down offers from Kansas, North Carolina and Duke, among others, to play for Bo. A junior out of La Crosse Aquinas High School, Koenig could be a future replacement for Jordan Taylor’s spot on the hardwood.
I’m certainly not predicting that Ryan will turn into Coach K and the Badgers will have their pick of the top players in the country. But the fact that Wisconsin has recently received commitments from two of the best players in the state is a positive sign. If Dekker and Koenig can flourish in the passing-oriented offense, the Badgers might be able to shed the stigma that it’s difficult to put up big numbers in Ryan’s system.
Even for haters of the swing, it’s hard to deny there’s no way UW would make 13-straight NCAA tournaments without the man who may one day find his name on the Kohl Center court. With eight 20-plus win seasons during Ryan’s 10-year tenure in Madison, Ryan has brought an unmatched record of success to the program and turned UW into a perennial Big Ten contender.
Dick Bennett’s legendary run to the Final Four in 2000 with a squad that rarely hit the 60-point mark was a sign of great coaching, but there’s no way the Badgers would have experienced the same level of success under Bennett.
And let’s not forget about the other outstanding wins that have decorated Ryan’s career at Wisconsin. From Michael Flowers knocking down a last-minute trey to beat Texas on the road in 2008 to the Badgers taking down Duke two years ago at the Kohl Center and their more recent upset over then-No. 1 Ohio State, Ryan has brought tremendous excitement back to the UW basketball program. With a ridiculous 152-11 record at home, he can largely be credited for creating the raucous environment that is the Kohl Center and the excitement around the men’s basketball program.
With the level of talent Ryan is given every year in assembling a team, his system gets the most out of his players. Apart from the occasional stars like Alando Tucker, Jon Leuer and Taylor, the majority of the Badgers are Midwest guys who were overlooked by other top-notch Division I schools.
Rather than individual talent, Ryan’s teams are built off assembling several overachieving role players who rarely average double-digit points. Stars like Leuer and Taylor may garner much of the attention, but the key to Bo’s teams are guys like Mike Bruesewitz, Tim Jarmusz (yes, even Timmy) and Jason Bohannon, whom he develops into standout players.
Without Ryan’s system, UW fans would be pulling for a mediocre program that occasionally makes the NCAA tournament but generally finishes near the bottom of the Big Ten. The man at the helm does more with the players he is given than perhaps any other college basketball coach in the country. Just as in football, it’s often difficult to attract the most talented recruits in the nation to Madison, and with his recruiting based in Wisconsin, Minnesota and much of the Midwest, Ryan overachieves as a coach just about as much as his players do.
This year, the Badgers don’t look like they have much to offer outside of Taylor. Undoubtedly, critics will pick against Ryan and the Badgers. But in doing so, they’ll be forgetting one key fact: Bo knows best, and he always will.