"I didn't realize how hungry the Wisconsin fans were for a championship," Ryan said. "What we heard every place we went, that those kinds of things, there is something about a Big Ten Championship that wasn't on the lips of the people in the neighborhood, and it sounded good."
It didn't take long for Ryan and his team to quench the thirst of its fan base. When the Badgers host Penn State on Sunday, Wisconsin will honor the 10th anniversary of the 2001-02 Big Ten Championship team – a team that brought UW its first basketball conference championship since 1946-47.
The championship came in Ryan's first season as head coach at Wisconsin, and the 11th-year coach still marvels how that team came together despite freshman Andreas Helmigk blowing out his knee in training camp, freshman Latrell Fleming collapsing on the hill and nearly dying because of an undiagnosed heart condition and transfers leaving the team with just seven scholarship players.
"It seemed like every time you turned around something was happening or we were losing someone," said Mike Wilkinson, a redshirt freshman on that championship team. "Some days in practice it was interesting with just the number of people we had to practice with, but everyone wanted to be there and everyone put everything into each practice and each game if you played or not. "
Added Ryan: "We had to re-recruit some people so they wouldn't go somewhere else. They just worked."
Although the Badgers were short handed, there were some promising components. Although averaging just 4.2 and 2.2 points per game the previous season, respectively, seniors Charlie Wills and Trevon Davis brought toughness and Final Four experience.
Kirk Penney was the unquestioned scoring leader and the Badgers had promising youth in redshirt freshmen in Wilkinson and Clayton Hanson, who turned down a full scholarship offer from Ryan's former school Milwaukee to walk on, and a true freshman from Wauwatosa named Devin Harris.
For most players, Ryan was their third head coach in less than a year, but those who decided to stay on the roster banded together.
"It was tough as a team, but we all stuck together," Wilkinson said. "I think that is something that helped us at the beginning of the next year because the people that had been there already relied on each other with all that we had gone through."
Being a short-handed group combined with a brutal schedule and a new philosophy led to a brutal start. The Badgers played five road games in 13 days in three different time zones that stretched from Hilo, Hawaii to Atlanta. UW dropped six of its first nine and the optimism was low despite Wisconsin beating No.14 Marquette by 23 just 11 days before the opener.
"We all had something to prove," said Wilkinson. "Everybody except us thought we weren't going to be very good. That just made us work harder. We had a lot of smart guys and that is something we really relied on. We kept things simple and just read the game and relied on each other.
"We always felt we could compete. We felt like we could compete with anyone. Sure we lost a lot of tough games early, but, if anything, that just made us that much hungrier and we learned a lot from those games about how to win and do the little things necessary to come out on the left hand side."
Those little things helped in a season where no team asserted themselves as the team to beat in the Big Ten. Although it lost its first two conference road games, Wisconsin beat No.7 Illinois by six at home and Freddie Owens hit a game-winner at Michigan State that snapped the Spartans' 53 game home winning streak.
Despite going 3-3 in their next six games, Wisconsin upended No.16 Ohio State at home in overtime to start a run of victories that included a one-point win at No.22 Indiana, the Badgers first win at Assembly Hall since 1977. That put Wisconsin in position to clinch a share of the title in the season finale, which is did after beating Michigan, 74-54, for the school's first Big Ten title in 55 years and sent the students streaming on to the court.
"We knew it was for the title and weren't going to lose that game no matter what," Wilkinson said. "The fans were incredible. I remember everyone rushing the floor and all the excitement. With everyone wanting to congratulate you it was hard to breathe at times because there were just so many people."
Wisconsin shared the title with Indiana, Illinois and Ohio State with an 11-5 record, a championship Ryan said UW won in part because it caught a break with the Buckeyes. Before Ryan introduced legislation limiting teams to no more than two consecutive conference road games, Ohio State played four straight on the road, going 1-3 on a stretch that included the 94-92 overtime loss in Madison.
"How fair would that be for your players to play four road games in a row? Ohio State took a few bumps in there and made us look human," Ryan said. "We caught a few breaks along the way, but you make your breaks. Guys competed hard. It felt good. I know that."
During the 10 seasons the Big Ten played 16 conference games (from 1997 to 2007), no school won the regular season title with 11 or fewer wins. The .688 winning percentage was also the lowest in the history of the 16 game schedule.
After being eliminated in the Big Ten Quarterfinals, Wisconsin beat St. John's in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, marking just the Badgers second win in the tournament's first round since 1994, before losing to top-seeded Maryland – the eventual national champions – two days later.
For being a MASH unit of sorts, Wisconsin's 2001-02 team had more than its fair share of standout contributors. Kirk Penney averaged 15.1 points per game and has played professionally since 2003. Harris was second on the team averaging 12.3 points, was the fifth pick in the 2004 NBA Draft and a NBA All-Star in 2009.
Wilkinson averaged 9.3 points and currently plays in Russia while Wills (10.2 ppg), Dave Mader (starting every game), Owens (8.1 ppg) and Davis (2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio) all have stayed close to the community.
"Each year is special in its own way," said Wilkinson. "Each year you go through a lot as a team in preseason and with injuries and tough losses that make you the team you are. That first year we did go through a lot and it made us pull together and do something great. It will be something that I will always remember."
Wilkinson isn't one of the players able to attend the weekend's festivities, but Wills will be one of the former players that will be recognized at halftime.
"It's been a really good response from the guys and it's going to be nice to see everybody," Willis said. "It's going to be a nice thing for us all to interact and hang out. It's a brotherhood. Life does go on and guys go different places, but those connections are still there, no matter if you haven't seen each other for a bunch of years. You can step back into those roles and that's what those (reunions) are for.
"It's nice that are willing to bring us back, treat us this way and it's only going to bring good things for the university in the long run."
It's hard to argue that success hasn't followed. Wisconsin's Kohl Center has turned into one of the toughest venues in the country, as the Badgers typically play in front of sellout crowds and win games (entering Sunday with a 163-15 record in 11 seasons). The Badgers have yet to finish lower than fourth under Ryan's watch and have yet to miss a NCAA Tournament.
More importantly, Wisconsin has won two more conference championship, only they won those titles outright. That's a story for another reunion … like the one coming next year.