When Ryan first took the helm at UW, the Badgers boasted just eight healthy scholarship players. UW won a share of the Big Ten title in that 2001-02 season while essentially using just two players off the bench.
In Ryan's second year UW employed a six-man rotation in large part, with forwards Dave Mader and Andreas Helmigk picking up spot minutes to back up the top six. The Badgers expanded the bench last season, with three players averaging more than 30 minutes per game, three between 19 and 26 minutes per game and three more in the 10-11 range.
This season has been Wisconsin's most equitable arrangement yet, with 10 players averaging more than 8.0 minutes per game. It is the result of having a quintet of seniors who command playing time, but also having younger players who, through their development and attrition in the Badgers' lineup in the past year, have ascended to significant roles.
"I would like to play 10 and we're getting to do that some this year," Ryan said Monday.
The substitution pattern this season has adjusted as injury, illness and effectiveness have affected the lineup. The Badgers have shortened the bench considerably at times – notably in the second halves of a come-from-behind win over Iowa and a home loss to Illinois – but have typically rolled substitutes into games early, with significant minutes going to a handful of younger, less experienced players.
"In any program that's trying to continue to climb and continue to build upon what's been put in place so far, more times than not because you are successful it's because you have experienced players," assistant coach Greg Gard said. "You usually have upperclassmen that are getting the bulk of the minutes because they've been here for the longest, they have the most experience and they've been in different hostile environments, played different teams, are physically strong enough to play in those type of games."
Three Badgers are averaging more than 30 minutes per game, but none more than senior forward Mike Wilkinson's 31.3. Senior guard Clayton Hanson is at 30.6 and sophomore forward Alando Tucker, who missed three games with injury, averages 30.5. Senior guard Sharif Chambliss (24.9), sophomore guard Kammron Taylor (23.1) and senior forward Zach Morley (22.2) round out the typical top six.
Four more players, however, have been regular parts of the rotation: senior center Andreas Helmigk (9.0 minutes per game in 23 games), junior forward Ray Nixon (13.5 in 22), redshirt freshman forward Brian Butch (11.9 in 19) and freshman guard Michael Flowers (8.1 in 20).
Butch has missed the last three games with mononucleosis and remains out indefinitely, affording an opportunity to other young forwards, such as sophomore Jason Chappell, who played eight minutes against Michigan last week, and freshman Greg Stiemsma, who had five minutes in that game. Stiemsma and Chappell each played three minutes in the first half of the Iowa game.
"We have five seniors and those guys are getting a lot of minutes," Ryan said. "It sure would be nice at times to be able to expose some of these younger guys because we're definitely going to need them down the road but we also need to take care of business now. So it's kind of a juggling act. I really would feel comfortable playing 10 and if we can we do."
The "juggling act" Ryan mentioned plays out in practice throughout the season, as players work to earn playing time. Wisconsin's five seniors, along with sophomores Tucker and Taylor and the program's one junior, Nixon, have the most experience and have commanded the most consistent minutes as the season has progressed, but they are pushed by their younger teammates day after day.
"I think nothing happens in a game that isn't foreshadowed in practice," Gard said. "Usually the best players that you see in a game are out there playing because they are best players in practice."
"You look across the country, the programs that maintain or stay at the top year after year after year have upperclassmen playing the majority of their minutes," Gard said. "And you work in and the best way for the underclassmen to get the experience is what they're doing day-in and day-out against those older guys at practice.
"That's more valuable than any game experience they can get. It's what a Greg Stiemsma, or Brian Butch, or Jason Chappell are getting every day by going head-to-head with Mike Wilkinson and Helmigk and Zach and everybody else. I think they will draw on that experience more. Maybe they don't see it right now. They just look at the games and how many minutes….
"The experiences they are getting day-to-day with those upperclassmen will serve them more in the long road probably than they will ever know."
Wilkinson knows. He redshirted his first year on campus, learning the ropes from elder statesmen like Andy Kowske, Charlie Wills and Mark Vershaw. Wilkinson then came off the bench as a redshirt freshman, playing 28.2 minutes per game, before starting the past three seasons.
Wilkinson is confident that his understudies – Butch, Stiemsma and Chappell – will put in the work to improve and succeed in years to come.
"When I first started here I didn't have much time on the court either," Wilkinson said. "They've been around a lot of people that have been on the floor a long time. They are getting better every day. Just because they are not getting minutes now doesn't mean they are not going to be productive next year when they get out there.
"There's still a lot of time before next year. Who knows? They could be amazing by next year. Who knows what they can do in the summer and how much time they are going to put in, how hard they are going to work. That's just their style, that's what they are going to do this summer. I'm not worried at all."
Gard feels that the playing time Stiemsma and Chappell have received recently was valuable, particularly as a compliment to their work in practice.
"They were at that point where they had shown in practice, ‘hey, I can get a little taste of this,'" Gard said. "They looked like freshman and a sophomore out there at times but I thought as the game went on they got more and more comfortable. That will be something they can take from there and then come back and practice the next day and continue to grow from there."
"I've talked to them here and there throughout the season about just continue to play hard, whether it be in practice or just the minutes they get on the floor," Wilkinson said. "Just continue to learn and improve and things like that that will help them when they do get on the floor and down the road in the future."