Bo Ryan let the spray hit him full on. ¶ Minutes earlier, his Wisconsin men’s basketball team was staring down yet another NCAA tournament exit. The Badgers had a one-point lead with 2.3 seconds left in overtime, but Arizona had the ball and reason to be optimistic. All-America Nick Johnson’s shot didn’t beat the buzzer, however, and a swarm of red followed at midcourt.
“I can’t believe I’m gonna say it,” longtime Wisconsin play-by-play voice Matt Lepay shouted. “Bo Ryan and the Wisconsin Badgers have punched their ticket to Texas!”
Ryan was prepping for a postgame speech in the locker room at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., when his players, loops of net tied into their “West Regional champions” hats, twisted open the caps on their water bottles and attacked.
It wasn’t bubbly, but perhaps this shower was more appropriate for the blue-collar, workmanlike Badgers.
For the first time since 2000, the Badgers are back in the Final Four. They play Kentucky, hotter than Dallas on a summer afternoon, in Saturday’s second semifinal.
What Ryan has been methodically building over the past 13 seasons has finally come to fruition, and the result is his first Final Four and a Wisconsin team that is decidedly different from years past.
The program 250 miles southeast of the University of Minnesota is no stranger to success. Rather, Ryan has built a legacy in Madison, taking over a successful Badgers team establishing clockwork-like consistency. In each of his 13 years, he has finished in the top four in the Big Ten and brought the Badgers to the NCAA tournament.
“I just think that these guys that have done it for so long at a high level, that’s really what I’m impressed with, ” 31-year-old Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “Because for me, this is Year 2, and I think: Goodness.”
How has Ryan done it? How has he managed to maintain such heights in a way Wisconsin’s western neighbor has struggled to? How has he pushed this team just a little higher?
It starts with a system: a specific style of play, one that hasn’t changed much, even from his days of winning four NCAA Division III championships over 15 seasons at Wisconsin-Platteville. Season after season, Bo Ryan teams play strong fundamental defense, but without pressure. They shoot plenty of threes. And they are stacked with multifaceted players who can serve several roles.
“You look down their roster and all five guys on the floor at all times can pretty much post up, handle the ball, pass, knock down shots,” CBSSports.com college basketball writer Jeff Borzello said.
And that is no coincidence.
Ryan has molded his recruiting philosophy very closely to that objective, regardless of anything else. Wisconsin has not had a national top-25 recruiting class in at least a decade. By comparison, Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota have all had at least one class rise that high.
“When they have success, a lot of [coaches] start to try to get the highly touted, top-50 guys,” ESPN’s Jeff Goodman said. “Bo Ryan understands what fits his system and he doesn’t get away from that. He couldn’t care less about the rankings. … He doesn’t get caught up in the numbers at all, where a lot of the other coaches do.”
Ryan has managed to do most of that locally. This year, there is just one player on the roster who is not from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois or Ohio.
Rarely has Ryan plucked a highly touted prep star, but therein lies the second half of the Bo Ryan Process: the ripening. Only once in his Wisconsin career has a player (Devin Harris in 2004) left for the NBA early. The majority steadily develop and improve over four years. Ben Brust, Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson have all taken significant steps and fit together like a puzzle. Center Frank Kaminsky has transformed from role-player to game-changer this season; Dick Vitale calls him the nation’s most improved player. The Badgers have a debilitating matchup problem with most opponents in Kaminsky, who can battle in the paint or step out on the perimeter. He can dribble, he can shoot, he can distribute.
“For other teams it’s so hard to try to stop him,” Goodman said. “How many big guys like that can play post defense and perimeter defense? Not many. You run Kaminsky in a pick-and-roll and it’s like, what do you do?”
Just as player development is a staple of Ryan’s teams, so too are strong upperclassmen. The difference now is that he has secured a couple of instant impact guys in sophomore Sam Dekker and steady freshman Nigel Hayes. The blend has taken the Badgers over the top.
“Now that he’s getting these freshmen to go with the usual players he develops,” the Big Ten Network’s Brent Yarina said, “I think we’re about to see Wisconsin take a step forward and be a consistent national power.”
Could such a formula work with the Gophers, a program that has struggled to land headline recruits and get over the hump in the rugged Big Ten? It certainly won’t happen overnight. Ryan had the benefit of taking over a program that was left in good shape by former coach Dick Bennett. That Wisconsin and Ryan — a former Badgers assistant who returned in 2002 following only two seasons as a Division I coach, both at Wisconsin-Milwaukee — were established created optimism from those on the outside looking in. He could go after two- and three-star recruits without being scrutinized.
“If Pitino came in and said, ‘I don’t care, we’re going to get all two-star kids’ — what would the fan base say?” Borzello said. “They wouldn’t be happy with that. They’d go, ‘I don’t want that, I want a good kid, I want top-100 kids, I want four- and five-star players.’ So I think expectations play a factor.”
And as Ryan is finding out this year, even with the right pieces, intangibles such as team chemistry can be the difference. Back in December, before Wisconsin dispensed eventual ACC champion Virginia in Charlottesville, Goodman attended a couple of practices and had to shake his head.
“You see it sometimes written or said, but in this case it’s true — these guys genuinely like each other,” he said. “You watch Bo Ryan with this team and you can tell — he loves this group. They keep him loose. Bo is kind of tight generally, but with this group, he’s so loose. This group has changed Bo Ryan.”
This group is two victories from once again collecting their water weapons. If the Badgers get there, Ryan can again bask in the makeshift shower and enjoy the fruits of his labor. It’s what he has been building for more than a decade.