Kansas is making its seventh Sweet 16 appearance since 2003 (tied with second-round loser Duke for the most over that time frame) while North Carolina and Michigan State are making its sixth and Kentucky, Syracuse, Xavier and … Wisconsin? … are making its fifth.
The Badgers (26-9) aren't considered by most ‘experts' as one of college basketball most successful programs over the last decade, but the Badgers' three trips to the Sweet 16 ranks third in the nation over the last five seasons.
"How many people do you think are still looking at brackets?" Ryan questioned. "If you are a Wisconsin fan, it's awfully nice because you know you have at least another 40 minutes to yell … When you take a bump, you are forgotten in a hurry. The longer you can last is always good, I think, because of all the establishments and all the places that people gather … to follow us."
While making its second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance for the first time in school history and its eighth trip in program history, part of the reason Wisconsin isn't viewed in that upper echelon is the Badgers are 2-3 in the Sweet 16 round since 2000, haven't made the Elite Eight since 2005 and have yet to make a Final Four under Ryan.
However, not many people were thinking about that when Wisconsin started 1-3 in Big Ten play.
"A lot of people are really pulling for this team because of the fact that they kind of say, ‘We didn't think you were going to be that good,'" said Ryan, hinting also to the fact UW lost six seniors off last year's Sweet 16 team. "There are some days in practice I told them that, too, but then pointed out how they can get better. It's one thing to say, ‘OK, maybe we're not very good here and we need to work on this,' but then we go out and work on it.
"This team has come a long way and I am really proud of them."
Should Wisconsin want to advance this year and keep surprising people, the Badgers will need to solve top-seed Syracuse (33-2) in the East Regional semifinal at Boston's TD Garden at 6:15 CT Thursday.
Sneaking by No.16 seed UNC-Ashville (72-65) in the second round before pummeling No.8 seed Kansas State (75-59) in the third round, Syracuse (33-2) is making its 17th appearance and third time in four years in the round of 16.
The Orange, who had already set a school record for wins in a season, were ranked No. 1 for six weeks, but were not the favoring entering the tournament after the news concerning sophomore center Fab Melo being ineligible for the tournament, reportedly because of academics.
The 7-foot Melo, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, was the team's leading rebounder at 5.8 boards and 2.9 blocks per game, averaged 7.8 points per game and was the key figure in the middle of Syracuse's famed 2-3 zone defense.
Ryan couldn't comment on how Melo's departure has changed the Orange schematically because, naturally, he's only looked at Syracuse's two NCAA Tournament games without him. What he sees, however, is a group that has a lot of length, can read and react well to shooters and play active on both ends of the court.
"It's why they've been so successful for so long, they get the athletes that can do it," said Ryan. "Jim has a system going that everybody learns from the guys in front of them.
"They're just good. They can shoot the three, they can go rebound the misses on the offensive end, guys who can penetrate … so they have a lot of different weapons and they do have depth."
Two of a Kind
The way Ryan described Jim Boeheim's system at Syracuse could be said about the way Ryan has run his program at Wisconsin since arriving here in 2001. Not surprisingly, Ryan and Boeheim share a lot of similarities.
Both are in their 60s (Boeheim is 67, Ryan is 65), both got their first college assistant coaching job at the school they currently coach (Boeheim as a graduate assistant under Roy Danforth in 1969, Ryan as an assistant under Bill Cofield in 1977), have won national championships (Boeheim with Syracuse in 2003, Ryan with Division III UW-Platteville in 1991, 1995, 1998, 1999) and spend every Final Four sitting behind Boeheim and his wife, Julie.
"She always has licorice during the game," said Ryan. "She always asks my dad is he'd like some licorice or some candy when we're sitting at the games."
More important than the flavor of candy, Ryan and Boeheim are both on the board of directors for the National Basketball Coaches Association that address issues like transfers of students that have graduated and limiting the amount of times when and how often coaches can recruit.
"We're not afraid to have opinions and express them in spite of what other people might feel that aren't in this and do what we do every day," said Ryan. "Jim is one of those guys that likes to tell it like it is, and I am not bashful."
The two also share some differences with Ryan playing basketball in Wilkes-Barre, PA, from 1965 to 1969 and Boeheim played professional basketball with Scranton of the Eastern League.
"We tried to stay as far away from Scranton as possible," Ryan said. "They were our rivals … If Jim was in Scranton, he didn't come to play any pick-up games with us."
Big Ten Success
The state of Ohio made headlines over the weekend by becoming the first state to send four schools to the Sweet 16 (and are a perfect 8-0), and part of that success has helped the Big Ten. In addition to Ohio State being a perfect 2-0, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana all won its two opening games to advance, tied with the Big East for the most schools from one conference still in the field.
Combine Purdue's one win and Michigan's one loss, the Big Ten is 9-2 in the NCAA Tournament. In comparison, the Big East is 10-5.
"Our conference has done extremely well," said Ryan. "I've said that before about preparing each other for what's coming later and hopefully it can continue for all of us. We know the odds are maybe not in our favor, but I like the way the teams have played. A couple tough losses for the two that didn't advance, but it's not two out of three."
While Wisconsin has been fortunate to play NCAA Tournament games in past years while on spring break, the Badgers coaching staff has had to balance its players taking tests last Wednesday and Thursday while preparing for second-round opponent Montana and will have to do the same this week.
"We've got guys with tests this week, guys today that are scrambling to get ahead … knowing they had a lot of stuff to get done before taking off Tuesday," said Ryan, who gave the team off yesterday. "We always tell them, ‘That's what you are here.' You'll never hear from us, ‘These poor guys.' No way. This is what they're supposed to be doing and their fortunate that they get an education and make a trip to the Sweet 16."
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