Souhan: It's basketball in slow motion but Badgers coach Ryan makes it work

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 14, 2013 - 6:11 AM

The Badgers embrace physical play and limited possessions because it suits them.

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Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan.

Photo: Andy Manis, Associated Press

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The Grinch Who Stole Fastbreaks is coming to Williams Arena on Thursday night. Someone needs to stop him from nailing peach baskets to the backboards.

Bo Ryan, who coaches deflated basketball at the University of Wisconsin, is the best thing ever to happen to his school's program. It's debatable whether he's the best or worst thing ever to happen to his sport.

Coaches like Ryan make college basketball fascinating. He takes unathletic players and melds them into an oversized Swiss watch, a small machine that works because of unseen mechanisms.

Coaches like Ryan mean college basketball can be unsightly. His philosophies mirror those of many of his peers who have devised strategies that turn what used to be the most exciting game in the land into a combination of wrestling and polka.

As talented players continue to leave early for pro ball, while rules and on-site officials allow the subtle muggings Ryan and his peers teach, college basketball has become a game of sideline control.

That's wonderful if you have tickets to the Kohl Center. That's not so wonderful if you believe basketball is meant to be a creative and free-flowing sport.

Coaches like Ryan know they can't win with an entertaining style, so they slow down the game. They decrease the number of possessions by discouraging their own players as well as the other team from running. They regard the first 20 seconds on the shot clock the way moviegoers regard previews.

Basketball has always featured coaches who believed in Ryan's philosophies. What's different these days is that defenders are allowed to get away with contact that wouldn't be allowed in an NFL secondary.

Next time you see two teams in the 20s in the second half of a big-time college basketball game, watch the defenders. They bump every offensive player who cuts into the lane. They use their chests and legs to bump and jostle. They play post defense the way many offensive lineman block, knowing officials aren't going to call holding on every play.

They turn what could be the most beautiful game in the world into mud wrestling. The strategy is as effective as it is ugly.

The game's legendary coaches emphasized strong defense, but believed they could achieve advantages with intricate offenses and fast breaks. Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Dean Smith, Jim Calhoun and Eddie Sutton are among the modern coaches with more than 800 career victories who loved a well-executed fast break.

That's where Ryan is different. He knows he doesn't have the athletes to win by scoring 80, so he tries to keep opponents under 50. He does what great coaches do: Uses the written and unwritten rules of his sport to his advantage.

I can't stand his style of basketball, but let me make an admission: Geography matters. As someone who lives west of the St. Croix, I can't stand to watch basketball that looks like four-square. If Minnesota had hired Ryan, I'd be his biggest booster.

We care about style when we watch television. If Ryan were coaching at the Barn and finishing in the top four in the Big Ten every year -- and he's never finished lower at Wisconsin -- I'd recommend signing him to a lifetime contract.

Style matters from afar. Up close, winning is always entertaining.

Minnesotans learned that after the Wild fired Jacques Lemaire and promised to play a more aggressive, up-tempo style. Two coaches later, the Wild, which spent $196 million in free agency to upgrade talent, has scored one goal in regulation in each of the past six games.

If the Vikings won a Super Bowl by a score of 3-0, what fan would complain? The most thrilling game in Twins history produced one run in 10 innings. The Wolves were at their best when Kevin Garnett was the NBA's fiercest defender.

Tonight, when Ryan tries to lull Williams Arena to sleep, Minnesotans are entitled to jeer his style and envy his success.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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