MADISON - The debate rages on in the media world about how to “fix” the game of college basketball; It’s unwatchable, scoring is down and the shot clock is too high. Flip on a college basketball national broadcast and someone will be talking about ways to fix the game.
Over his 31 years as a head coach, including the last 14 with Wisconsin, Ryan has been known as a coach with a specific style of basketball that has been described from fundamentally-sound and patient to plodding and boring. It’s a stigma that has been attached, fairly or unfairly, to Wisconsin since he arrived.
It’s not like Wisconsin has been some flash-in-the-pan program either. All UW had done under Ryan in his tenure is make the NCAA tournament every season, finish in top four in the conference regular season standings (a league record), won four Big Ten regular season titles, three tournament titles, made seven Sweet 16s, three Elite Eights, consecutive Final Fours and a runner-up finish.
So, with his team on the eve of playing for its first national championship in 74 years last April, Ryan was asked again, how has Wisconsin suddenly cracked the code by being one of the nation’s most efficient offenses in the last two seasons?
“Having players that have worked as hard as they have worked to get to this point where they are, a lot of people are talented coming out of high school, it's what people do with what they have,” said Ryan. “They've done an awful lot of positive things. Scoring is down one three-point basket a game. If people want to get nervous, break out, have problems with that, I feel sorry for 'em.
“You know, it's just amazing. Still, you can watch a basketball game and you can see a score, and they'll say what a great defensive battle it was. When we're involved in those games, how come it's not said, it's a great defensive battle? I could never figure that one out. But last year we scored winning games, 100, 90, 80, 70, 60, 50, and 48-38 over Virginia … It's not like we were not trying to score. People can talk about scoring being down. It really doesn't resonate with myself because we know what we're trying to do, we know what the other team is trying to keep us from doing, and also we know what we're trying to keep them from doing.”
Ryan and Wisconsin don’t have to make excuses any more, especially after running through blue-blood alley last postseason. After dispatching Coastal Carolina and Oregon in the NCAA tournament’s first weekend, Wisconsin took down five-time champion North Carolina, perennial West Coast power Arizona and eight-time champion, not to mention 38-0, Kentucky before getting a crack at four-time champion Duke.
And while there was some timely defense sprinkled in, the Badgers made their run by averaging 78.6 points over their first five tournament games, including putting 85 points up on Arizona’s third-ranked defense in terms of defensive efficiency and 71 points on Kentucky, considered one of the best defensive units in the past 10 years.
“Good people can make good things happen. Boy, I've been surrounded by a lot, from the administration to the players, coaches, support staff,” said Ryan. “Wisconsin is a pretty neat place. I've had a chance to coach all different kinds of personalities, all different kinds of guys from different walks of life. I'm really lucky. One thing I said in (my introductory) press conference, when asked, ‘What do you expect to do here as a head coach?’ Compete for the upper half of the Big Ten every year, finish towards the top, have a chance for a conference championship, and have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament every year. Okay, so I got lucky in that statement. But it's been a lot of fun and it's due to a lot of people.”
On the eve of Wisconsin’s season opener against Western Illinois at the Kohl Center, possibly Ryan’s last opener as a college head coach, the Badgers’ veteran head coach has his youngest roster – comprised of eight freshmen who will be in charge of filling the production left by five departed players, including national player of the year Frank Kaminsky.
That’s nothing for Ryan, far and away the most successful coach in Wisconsin history, considering he’s built champions and won 740 games (with a 76.4 winning percentage) at every level.
He coached at three different high schools, was an assistant at Wisconsin under Bill Cofield and Steve Yoder from 1976-84 and shot up the coaching ranks at Division III UW-Platteville.
In 15 years at the small engineering school in the southwest part of the state, Ryan’s teams went 353-76 (.822). 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, compiled a 30-5 NCAA Division III tournament mark, and never won fewer than 23 games.
He spent two years building a UW-Milwaukee before moving on to Wisconsin, where he has been named the Big Ten Coach of the Year four times (2002, ’03’, ’13, ‘15) and taken a program that had won 53.1 percent of its games overall to one that has won 74.2 percent. The turnaround in conference games (.445 to .717) is even more remarkable.
This is where the conversation usually had a “but” thrown in as in “but” he hadn’t taken a team to a Final Four. Like in any NCAA tournament, there’s an element of luck involved. UW had lost to its fair share of hot shooting mid-majors, had a helping of shooting clunkers and untimely injuries.
That’s what made the 2014 Final Four run satisfying for Wisconsin fans. It was vindication that the program’s model didn’t have a ceiling, and especially for a coach that had seemingly accomplished everything else.
“The world knows that he’s a great coach,” said forward Nigel Hayes, “whereas before it was ‘he’s never been to a Final Four’ and now he’s been to two in a row.”
The perception of Wisconsin basketball has changed, now uttered in the same breath with some of the teams UW vanquished on its national title game run as among the best in the game. Ryan didn’t need it to validate himself or his program. Considering the body of work, Wisconsin has been doing pretty good with whatever label they have been given.
“I'm never really concerned if there are people that perceive us a certain way because we are who we are,” said Ryan.” We play the way we play. We're sure happy with it. So we can live with that.”