Understanding the success of the Wisconsin men’s basketball team this year starts with one underlying principle: Bo Ryan doesn’t change.
As the world surrounding him gets caught up in the Twitter-verse, as coaches toss out playbooks and start anew in search of the best system for today’s game, head coach Ryan remains a beacon of consistency in the college basketball world.
The critics — and there are more than a handful — say he wins through his system. They say he wins ugly. They say his glacially-paced squads are nothing less than painful to watch. But he doesn’t care, flashing his 11 (and soon-to-be 12) consecutive NCAA tournament appearances as evidence that he may be stubborn, but damned if it doesn’t work.
In his 12 years in Madison, he may never have produced so much from such few resources as he has with a Badger unit that is making a last-second charge for the Big Ten title with three games remaining in conference play, the same Big Ten that has earned universal recognition as the nation’s most competitive college basketball conference in 2012.
He’s guiding a team without a single player averaging over 11.6 points per game to the edge of a Big Ten title, a team that the media selected to finish fifth in the preseason polls — and that was before junior starting point guard Josh Gasser went down with a torn ACL.
Many have said this may be Ryan’s most masterful work of a career replete with surprisingly strong finishes, and they are right. It is just that body of work that should peg him not just as the front-runner, but indeed the clear victor for Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.
It is an honor he has already earned twice — in his first year with the Badgers in 2002 and again in 2003 — and he is even more deserving of this one. The only other season that compares to his body of work in 2012-13 came back in 2001-02, when UW earned a share of the Big Ten title despite the sizable hurdles of a new staff and a fresh (though still defensively-minded) system.
Though his 19-win campaign in his first season with Wisconsin was certainly impressive, the Big Ten was not stacked with the depth it has this year. In 2002, the Big Ten sent five teams to the NCAA tournament, none of them higher than a 4-seed despite Indiana (a 5-seed) making a run to the national title game.
If ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest predictions hold true, seven Big Ten squads will take part in March Madness this year and three of them will be either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. The top-to-bottom strength of basketball in the Midwest is nothing less than stunning and provides a massive boost to Ryan’s coach of the year resume.
So just who, exactly, are his competitors to win the award for the first time in a decade?
The most compelling case comes from Indiana’s Tom Crean, who has restored the glory to the cream and crimson in his fifth season with the Hoosiers. Crean deserves considerable praise for reversing the fortunes of a program that was in absolute shambles when he arrived in Bloomington in 2008. But Indiana was supposed to be an elite power this year.
With Cody Zeller returning after a star freshman campaign, highly-regarded freshman Yogi Ferrell manning the point and an even better-than-expected Victor Oladipo emerging as a National Player of the Year candidate, Crean’s roster is loaded with talent. At least two of his current players will likely be top-15 picks in June’s NBA draft, and Indiana has lived up to the tremendous hype it faced as the nation’s top-ranked team in preseason polls.
Ryan, on the other hand, has relied on a much different case: three senior forwards who spent the bulk of their careers as role players (Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans), a streaky shooter previously regarded as a defensive liability (junior Ben Brust), a sophomore guard who had seen sparse minutes forced to play out of position and man the point (Traevon Jackson) and an immensely talented freshman forward still learning the intricacies of the college game (Sam Dekker).
The fact Wisconsin has lost only one more conference game than Indiana despite a massive talent gap is a tribute to Ryan’s ability to shape his gameplans around his available pool of players.
The only other serious competitor for the award is Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. Izzo has composed another marvelous year for the Spartans, a team also firmly planted in the conference title race, but he still had more to work with than Ryan. And he just won the award in 2012 for the third time, and, as we all learned in kindergarten, sharing is a good thing, right?
When woeful shooting plagued the Badgers earlier this year, Ryan responded by convincing his players to fully buy in to his defensive principles, gradually sculpting them into one of the top defenses in not just the Big Ten but the nation. In the words of the one freshman who has been an invaluable piece of the most unlikely of runs for the conference crown, Ryan’s way has become the Badger way.
“We’re just playing better Badger basketball, and that’s what we’re built [for] and that’s what we’ve worked on to this point to get at,” Dekker said Sunday. “We think we can win every game, no matter where we’re playing, no matter who we’re playing.”
They have worked for this moment and that moment has arrived. It’s only fair to hand the hardware to a conductor of an orchestra that has grown all the more harmonious with time. Because some things — like Wisconsin being in the mix for a Big Ten title come late February — will never change.