When the Badgers graduated the dynamic post scoring duo of Keaton Nankivil (make sure you YouTube his game-winner for his team in Germany) and Jon Leuer (YouTube him blowing by and dunking on Dwight Howard), it looked like opposing teams would find it easier to focus on preseason All-American Jordan Taylor and shut down the Badgers’ offensive drive.
Jared Berggren was high on my radar, but it was ambiguous as to how he would measure up as a starter against some of the Big Ten’s elite, physical posts in Draymond Green and Jared Sullinger.
Just a year ago, it seemed Ryan Evans was nothing more than a dynamic, athletic defender with a streaky shot, one that made fans groan every time he went up. Mike Bruesewitz was solid at knocking down the open looks from the three spot in his sophomore year, but it was hard to tell how many of those open looks came from the presence of Nankivil, Leuer and Taylor on the court.
But, the Wisconsin winning recipe always comes down to one thing. When Bo Ryan celebrated a big upset on the road against Ohio State in the locker room, he did so combining it with the footwork of a defensive drill. Ryan is a defensive-minded basketball coach, to say the least.
I embrace Ryan’s defensive approach to the game, which is the reason the Badgers have been in the top tier of the Big Ten for Ryan’s entire Wisconsin tenure. With a 242-91 record overall combined with a 120-48 record in conference play, it’s hard to argue against Bo Ryan as an elite coach in the NCAA.
This year, solid defense has allowed the Badgers once again to remain a ranked team in a year they lack the usual offensive depth. Wisconsin is currently the best defense in college basketball points-wise. The Badgers allow an anemic 52 points per game on average to opponents. The Badgers also rarely waste possessions, ranking 18th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio at an impressive 1.29. They commit the second fewest turnovers in the nation, averaging only nine giveaways a game.
Wisconsin also doesn’t commit fouls. The Badgers commit the third fewest fouls per game in the NCAA (14 per game). This season, through 30 games, the Badgers have had a player foul out only five times. Those stats are more important than you may think, especially for a team who has a 6-8 man rotation.
For the experienced Wisconsin basketball fan, these stats are often repeated. However, many forget that Ryan lost two recruits from his 2009 class – Diamond Taylor and Jeremy Glover – to off-court issues. If those two had remained, the Badgers would perhaps have some depth at the guard position that they seemingly lack aside from Jordan Taylor, Josh Gasser and Ben Brust. With Traevon Jackson sitting in waiting, it would have been nice this season to have two more guards to give the Badgers some extra pop at the 1 and 2 positions.
Now, the Badgers have a real shot at finishing tied for third in the conference. Ryan has once again shown that his strong defensive man-to-man approach and controlling half-court tempo yield consistent results. This season more than ever has shown that Bo can squeeze out the most of any talent he possesses.
To say that this Wisconsin team has overachieved is false. There is no such thing as overachieving. If a team produces a certain result through a 30-game season – in this case, plenty of wins – the team is achieving nothing more or nothing less then it is supposed to. Basketball may be a game of highs and lows, but to get a top spot in the Big Ten, a team must consistently play at a high level every night, and this team has shown it can consistently compete with the Big Ten’s best.
Entering into the Big Ten tournament and the Big Dance, the Badgers are once again a team few hope to draw. The Badgers rarely beat themselves and have a formula that leads to consistent victories. The teams to knock off the Badgers in the NCAA tournament the past four years have been Butler, Cornell, Xavier and Davidson. In those losses, the Badgers allowed their opponents to shoot 42, 61, 39 and 49 percent, respectively.
If the Badgers can consistently play stifling defense in the NCAA tournament, there isn’t going to be any reason why this Wisconsin squad can’t make a deep run into the NCAA tournament. The field once again lacks dominant teams, and the Badgers have that gritty Bo Ryan brand of basketball to pick off undisciplined giants.
Dick Bennett and the Badgers made their improbable run to the Final Four in 2000. The team won their last seven of 10 games down the stretch, with all three losses coming to eventual national champion Michigan State. The Badgers went on to dance all the way to the Final Four, where they lost once again (for the fourth time) to Michigan State. Just keep in mind that Wisconsin finished that year 16-12 overall and 8-8 in conference play entering the Big Ten Tournament.
Crazier things have happened. It isn’t crazy to think this Badger team’s defense has the chance to carry Wisconsin deep in the tournament.
Nick is a senior majoring in history and English. Love the column? Hate the column? Let Nick know at email@example.com.