Barry Alvarez honored Bo Ryan directly before tip-off with a basketball commemorating Ryan's 100th win at Wisconsin, which came on Saturday against Marquette. Something was whispered between the two as they parted ways, and although I do spend the bulk of my time watching spy shows like 24 and Alias, I have yet to master the whole "reading lips" routine.
If I had to guess though, I would say that Alvarez was giving Ryan the game plan for Wilmington, straight out of the Barry playbook:
Maintain good field position – The first half was largely played between the free throw lines. Neither team could find a way to get the ball in the paint. The Badgers had at least three post feeds batted down and stolen in the first half alone, turning the ball over ten times before the break.
The game looked like both squads were feeling each other out – swinging the rock around the key, battling for steals and chasing loose balls. (Not ‘loose rocks', but that would be a fun phrase if it caught on.)
This game was tied at 9-9 nearly twelve minutes in. Nobody seemed to know how to score or how to attack the tight defense being played on either side. Both teams managed just 16 points for the half. To compare, Barry's bunch averaged a shade over 18 before halftime this season. It was almost as if the teams were waiting, threatening to score without revealing themselves, and then going on the defensive.
Control the clock – I do not have statistics on this, but a very high number of possessions went down to the wire. Ryan said after the game that his team did not make the kinds of decisions with the shot clock running down that he would like. But at least they made an admirable run at that Badger favorite – "time of possession."
Hey, the other team can't score if you have the ball, right?
Excellent special teams – If you define special teams as those plays in which the ball is transferring hands between teams or does not really belong to anybody for a second or two, then there was plenty of that as well.
Jump balls galore, diving rebounds, scrums for loose balls near half court and bats in the air on interior passes were significantly more prevalent than "made field goals", of which there were just 13 in the first half.
Yes, the majority of the game looked its month – cold, miserable offense befitting a winter football game. Like the winter flu bugs going around, missed shots were contagious. Neither team managed to shoot 30 percent in the first half, and the opening minutes after the break showed little improvement.
Then things started to heat up. After largely playing a step behind the quick-footed, well-rested Seahawks — a tenacious and gritty animal, no doubt one of the greatest-feared of all the aquatic dwelling birds — Wisconsin opted to go small.
After the game, UNC-Wilmington coach Brad Brownell credited Ryan with not being hardheaded, but instead choosing to tinker with his lineup in countering the nimble defense of Brownell's Seahawks. Ryan said it took some "probing" and "experimenting."
Wilmington pressed the Badgers all night long. They did not get many of their turnovers as a direct result of the press, but it seemed to throw Wisconsin's offense off track enough that it would frustrate the way they set up once down the court. Despite guarding the interior closely and sagging off the wings a bit in the man-to-man, anytime the Badgers swung the ball it seemed the Seahawks were immediately ready with a man to contest.
Wilmington made the Badgers play the Seahawks' game. Luckily for Wisconsin, they played it well, eventually finding the right players to make a run.
"The group that was out there was a smaller lineup that moves their feet pretty well and matched up a lot better with that team," Ryan said. "When you're playing from behind you better find something before the 40 minutes is up. And thank goodness that group that was out there at the end was the group that found it."
Brownell said afterwards that he knew the Wisconsin big men could pose a threat to his team, but the defense Wilmington played rendered those bigs largely ineffective. Instead it was the smaller lineup Ryan went with as the second half progressed that finally took the ball to the lane and drew fouls. He played point guards Kammron Taylor and Michael Flowers together in the back court extensively, largely shelved big men Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma, and used players like freshmen Joe Krabbenhoft and DeAaron Williams at the ‘4'.
"It was going to boil down to us being able to get to the free-throw line because you do against aggressive teams," Ryan said.
Over a three-minute span in the middle of the second half, UW scored six of its eight points at the charity stripe, hanging around down 35-32. Those free throws allowed the Badgers to climb back in the game before the 3-point firework show began.
A game that was better suited for Monday Night Football than elite college basketball soon became a shootout. Winter coats still stretched across the stadium seats but the fans did not. Standing roars came after a number of big shots by Wisconsin, yet Wilmington seemed to find a way to answer each and every time.
This had all the makings of a March Madness classic — the pesky mid-major that loses the memo telling them they are supposed to fade down the stretch; the improbable deep 3-point shooting to keep them alive; the work ethic and team chemistry shining through on both ends of the floor. The Seahawks looked like a group that might feel comfortable trying on an NCAA Tournament slipper sometime this season.
In less than two minutes the teams traded six straight 3-point connections as if they were making up for lost time. I failed to see anyone holding up one of those four-fingered, fourth quarter signs on the bench, but apparently that was what it came down to for these Alvarez imitators turned Taylor Melhaff 3-point field goal connectors.
Up until this point my self-proclaimed highlight of the game had been the fan-favorite "Kiss Cam." But, after the stretch that would follow the 3-point thunderstorm, well, I think everyone in the Kohl Center wanted to "Kiss Kamm" instead.
Kamm Taylor scored Wisconsin's final eight points in under a minute, cementing his new position as a player who absolutely wants to take the shots late in the game.
Taylor had started things off slow, opening 0-for-8 and getting pulled a couple of times for conversation after Ryan seemingly disapproved of the moves Taylor made. When it mattered, though, Kamm came through.
"A wise man said that he'd be a great quarterback because he said that if (Taylor) threw some interceptions, he'd come back and he wouldn't be afraid to throw a touchdown," Ryan said, cracking a smile. "(The wise man) was Mike Lucas on the radio show."
After he hit a long 3 off the dribble to win the game at the buzzer, Taylor bolted back towards the student section and demanded the roof be raised and the fans become crazed.
"I was excited," Taylor laughed. "I don't know what else I can say."
Neither could anyone else.
So, all in all, an up-and-down but ultimately thrilling performance. I only watched, and yet it exhausted me. For the Badgers, it gives them another character builder over a team who actually entered the game with a higher RPI. Experience like this should come in handy for Wisconsin come Big Ten season and especially during March.
Let us just hope the Badger hoopsters do not try to mimic their pigskin peers ever again. And somebody make sure Mike Eaves is never, ever around Bo Ryan before a game.