CHICAGO — For fifth-year senior forward Ryan Evans, it has never been a question of potential.
The Wisconsin men’s basketball team’s 6-foot-6 forward, a player who recently earned the collective laughs of the country when his jump-shot free throws landed on ESPN’s First Take, may be the best athlete on the team. He has victimized opponents by throwing down highlight-worthy dunks and shown signs of a promising offensive game in his four years playing for the Badgers.
Saturday afternoon at the United Center, Evans fit the puzzle pieces together and carried the Wisconsin (23-10) offense with 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four blocks as the fourth-seeded Badgers upset top-seeded Indiana (27-6) 68-56 in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. By leading UW in three of those categories and tying point guard Traevon Jackson for the team-high in assists, he had a box score more typical of Victor Oladipo, the Hoosiers’ national player of the year candidate.
His most impressive basket of the day came with Oladipo — the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year — defending him. With Indiana cutting Wisconsin’s lead to five early in the second half, Evans dribbled with his back to the basket just beyond the free throw line before turning around and sinking a fadeaway jumper with a lunging Oladipo right in his face.
“On our off day we played four or five [one-on-one] games and he hit some shots during those games that you wouldn’t believe,” Dekker said. “When he hits those turnaround jumpers like he did today, it doesn’t surprise me at all. Those are the shots that he can hit.
“I said, ‘Hey, you got to bring that [to the game],’ and you can see that little drive that fire in him that he knows he can score [on] the person across from him.”
The player who faced much criticism from fans for his head-pounding issues at the free throw line (after Saturday’s game he sits at 43.1 percent) has arguably had the most trying year of any Wisconsin senior. Evans has taken more shots than anyone else on this team by a wide margin and converted just 39.9 percent on the season.
But all that was of little concern for Evans in Chicago Saturday. Finishing 7-of-12 from the floor — part of a collective 51 percent shooting effort — he was hesitant to say where this game ranked among his top career achievements.
“I don’t know, I don’t really rank them,” Evans said with a chuckle. “But I just want to be a player that comes ready to play on the big stage. I’ve always felt that I’ve been that way and I’m just trying to continue that.”
For a team roundly criticized this year for living and dying by its three-point shooting, it was Evans who anchored the Badgers’ dominant inside game. All 18 of Wisconsin’s first points came in the paint and the senior forward was responsible for eight of those.
It was no coincidence that UW’s second victory in as many days at the Big Ten tournament — one that pushed the Badgers into the tournament championship game for the first time since 2008 — featured an offense that operated through the paint. Even when Wisconsin was not scoring in the post, Evans established himself as a dangerous inside threat early and used this increased attention to create open three-point looks.
The first of those came in the final minutes of the first half, when Evans challenged Indiana 7-footer Cody Zeller by driving toward the hoop before kicking to an open Bruesewitz positioned deep on the right elbow. That three-pointer served as the exclamation point on a 10-0 Wisconsin run that positioned the Badgers for a slim halftime lead.
His other assist on a three-pointer also served as the centerpiece of a critical UW run when Evans blocked a floater from Oladipo that Dekker turned into a fast-break basket. The veteran dished to an open Dekker on the left wing, part of Dekker’s run of seven consecutive points that turned a tie game into a seven-point Wisconsin advantage.
“He was huge for us,” forward Jared Berggren, a fellow fifth-year senior, said. “We were getting him a lot of touches inside and running our offense through him a little bit. Same thing yesterday, yesterday he had a lot of big plays where he was either scoring or finding teammates, he had a lot of assists again.
“That’s doing a good job of finding teammates and helping make plays for others as well.”
So what was responsible for Evans’ sudden offensive revival?
Dekker said it was the confidence, the residual effects of seeing his shots fall early Saturday after an impressive 12-point, six-assist performance against Michigan Friday. Junior guard Ben Brust said Evans had displayed the ability to be a dynamic offensive player all year, the difference that now all the numbers filled a single box score.
Whatever the reason, Evans showed Saturday he had saved his best ball for the single-elimination season, where one shot can be the difference between thrilling victory and sour, season-ending defeat.
“It’s tournament time,” Evans said. “There’s no looking back at this point and we all want to come in here and finish strong for all the seniors. We have no jewelry yet so we definitely want to come in here and get some.”