INDIANAPOLIS - While he has continued to build the brand of Wisconsin basketball into a nationally respected power, the roots of Bo Ryan’s coaching empire remain firmly planted in Platteville, Wisconsin. It’s evident how close the Pioneers remain to his heart by the way Ryan always finds a way to sneak the tiny Division III school into a conversation on any stage.
But he rarely brings it into the locker room at the University of Wisconsin, which was why an impromptu Platteville film session carried such an impact.
After straying far away from its principles in a 59-53 loss at Maryland Feb.24, and having plenty of time to stew about it considering UW’s travel troubles delayed their return by half a day, associate head coach Greg Gard decided Platteville could have an impact on the Badgers.
“I dug it out of the archives in my office and I said coach, I think it’s time to take a look at it,” said Gard. “He said ‘show me what you got’ … It got a point across in terms of touching the post, how simple the game can be, how to cut hard and move away from the ball, how to pass and catch and really it was a kick in the pants. The game was a kick in the pants, too.”
The results speak for themselves. Currently on an 11 game winning streak, the Badgers have won each game by an average of 11.7 points, earned a pair of championships and beaten a list of the who’s who in college basketball. They have a chance to add one more impressive tally to that list Monday night when Wisconsin (36-4) faces Duke (34-4) in the national finals at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The journey to the finals wasn’t out of the question a month ago, but the performance in Maryland left a lot to be desired.
Playing only its second top 20 team of the season at that point, Wisconsin spent the first 20 minutes against the Terrapins stagnate on offense, a result of the Badgers settling for perimeter jump shots, not attacking the post and not crashing the boards. The opinion was unanimous: UW had strayed away from its basics and lost its identity.
“We were a little too soft at Maryland,” said Gard. “We weren’t ourselves. They obviously played really well. It was in a hostile environment, but there was something we were missing in terms of who we wanted to be. We needed to get back to hard cutting, sharing the ball, moving without the ball and those films really extenuate what we were really good at, at the time.”
Gard has coached with Ryan for 21 seasons, including all 14 at Wisconsin. Coaching together, Gard and Ryan have a record of 525-139 (.791 winning percentage), averaging 25 wins a season and having only four seasons with fewer than 20 victories.
Ryan guided the Division III Pioneers to a phenomenal 353-76 (.822) overall record. In his final 12 seasons, the Pioneers won four national championships (1991, ’95, ’98, ’99), were the winningest NCAA men’s basketball team of the 1990s (all divisions) with a 266-26 (.908) record, won eight WIAC titles and compiled a 30-5 NCAA Division III tournament mark.
And Ryan did it with a system of basic principles that has been the building block for every stop along the way.
“It was different to see the kind of basketball that was played back then,” said sophomore Zak Showalter, whose dad, Steve, played for Ryan at Platteville. “It’s a little different than it is now. I think it was good to see the fundamentals still work and if you do things the right way you win games.”
Gard said the Badgers had only gone to the Platteville film twice: once in Ryan’s first season as head coach in 2001 and one other time. None of their current players had seen the DVD, which was a combination of Platteville’s 1992 team, 1995 and a few others that was a little grainy in spots because it had been converted to different formats multiple times.
The Badgers didn’t even put the DVD in a media processor, meaning the staff couldn’t pause, stop or rewind the tape. So before Ryan and Gard were in the back chuckling as they let the tape play and took a stroll down memory lane, they made sure to preface the feature film by saying it would speak for itself.
“It showed that it’s not really about athleticism or how much you score or how big and strong you are; it’s about running the system and that it really does work,” said redshirt junior Jordan Smith. “There was some under-our-breath giggles but every shot they showed was going in and it was a well-run offense.”
Whether it caused shock or laughter, it was a break from the norm and the wake-up call that has precipitated UW’s run to the national championship game.
“The message was these guys are not nearly as talented as you and you can see them doing the fundamental things, moving the ball, being unselfish and they can score as will,” said senior Josh Gasser. “Add your talent level and athleticism level to that, imagine how good you can be. That definitely hit home with us. Obviously it was a different game, a different era, but still those Platteville tendencies still show up today.”