As you know, there’s a big basketball game tonight …
… thanks to Wisconsin’s domination of Baylor in the West Regional semifinal Thursday night.
Which inevitably means the rest of the country is being introduced to Badgers coach Bo Ryan.
(Before that, a note about last night’s 5-2 hockey loss to North Dakota: North Dakota needed Wisconsin to win the Big Ten title to get in the NCAAs. Had Ohio State won last weekend, the Buckeyes would have gotten the Big Ten’s automatic berth, Wisconsin would have been an at-large pick, and North Dakota would have missed the tournament entirely. And this is how the Fighting Sioux pay us back. May the Ralph Englestad Arena in Grand Forks sink underneath a blowing-out oil well.)
Now, back to the game, and the Denver Post’s Mark Kiszla:
Let me introduce you to college basketball’s invisible genius. His name is Bo. Oh, you know Bo. But we tend not to notice him, because Coach K hoards the championship rings, the silver tongue of John Calipari drops sweeter sound bites and Rick Pitino wears shinier shoes.
His name is Bo. He is a voice of reason in March Madness.
And there’s one more thing: Bo Ryan of Wisconsin just might be the best college basketball coach in America.
Bo loves fundamentals more than you love Mom’s chocolate-chip cookies fresh from the oven. Ryan is old school. His hair is gray. He teaches the nuances of the pump fake with enthusiasm Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning would admire.
“Having played quarterback, pump fakes work. It’s not that hard, and yet it’s amazing how many people don’t use them,” Ryan said Thursday, after his team demolished Baylor 69-52 in the West Regional semifinals.
Thanks to 19 points by 7-foot junior Frank Kaminsky and defense that’s harsher than a Wisconsin winter, the Badgers are one of the last eight teams standing in the NCAA Tournament.
Oh, you know this guy. Bo looks like your uncle who worked in the steel mill, back when America made stuff from steel rather than computer chips. Ryan is definitely the most accomplished Division I coach who has never taken a team to the Final Four.
“I’d be honored to be part of that,” Kaminsky said.
Baylor never had a shot against Wisconsin. Talk about lost in the woods: The Bears missed nearly 70 percent of their 57 field-goal attempts.
“The one thing you can’t control as a coach if they go in or out,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, a great recruiter who wouldn’t know a teaching moment if a great coach diagrammed it for him on a white board.
His name is Bo. Until this season, his offense has traditionally moved slower than that interminable TSA security line at the airport. Bor-ing. But get this: The Badgers have gone to the Big Dance in each of the 13 seasons since Ryan landed the Wisconsin job at the over-the-hill age of 53.
Ryan does not sell million-dollar fantasies to his players. Unlike Calipari, who has built the NBA’s swankiest green room in Lexington, Ky., a hotshot prep prospect should not enroll at Wisconsin if his dream is one-and-done.
Here is what Ryan seeks in a recruit: “Good students, hard workers, good listeners. People that are pretty focused on what’s going to happen in the next 60 years as well as they are focused on what’s going to happen in the next couple years, because that’s what we’re preparing people for as coaches. We’re preparing them for when they’re in their 30s, 40s, 60s, 70s and 80s.”
This guy sells life lessons. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m making Ryan sound like Ward Cleaver. And your eye roll shouts: How quaint.
It’s easy to get cynical when watching the NCAA tourney, which is a license to print money, from the tailor who designs Pitino’s suits to the geek who runs your office pool.
Ryan, however, has never grown jaded, even as he toiled for years far removed from the spotlight as coach of Wisconsin-Platteville.
When rival coaches shake a head in disbelief when told Bo encourages Wisconsin players to skip practice to attend class, Ryan replies: “Don’t you at your school?”
Of course, Wisconsin basketball fans know all this. Ryan won four Division III national championships, two of them ending undefeated seasons, at UW–Platteville. (Even Badger fans sometimes forget that this is Ryan’s second stop at UW, his first starting in 1976 as an assistant to Badger coach Bill Cofield, and then Steve Yoder. Which makes one wonder what might have happened in 1982 when, instead of having first choice Ken Anderson of UW–Eau Claire quit, and then choosing Ball State’s Steve Yoder, what might have happened had UW just hired Ryan.)
Having announced Division III basketball in the past, I can tell you that coaching in D3 is harder in a lot of ways than coaching at the D1 level. There are no charter flights, no athletic dorms, no huge basketball staffs, and, of course, no scholarships in Division III. The only thing Ryan could offer is in-state tuition.
USA Today’s Chris Korman is now paying attention to the Badgers too:
Above a tournament that has been defined by a veteran-laden, calculated Wichita State team losing to a young, instinctive Kentucky team, there hovers this idea that somehow the soul of college basketball is at stake.
Bob Knight gave voice to a group of fans tired of the transience caused by the one-and-done rule. College basketball is sloppy now, they say. The players lack passion and sophistication. Fundamentals are ignored. The sport is suffering.
As USA TODAY Sports’ Nancy Armour points out, that argument is hard to listen to. This is the NCAA tournament the NCAA has built. Only it can change the system.
But if you’re intent on finding a team — and a coach — committed to using four-year players employed in a traditional — and beautiful, when it works — system, then here’s Bo Ryan.
His Wisconsin Badgers had few missteps in brushing past a confused Baylor team Thursday night. The Badgers looked every bit as well-schooled and relentless as the purists would have you believe every team in the field once looked.
Crisp passes through Baylor’s zone — manned by quick, long, superior athletes — led to open shots. Or to textbook pump-fakes. If an outside shot didn’t open up, the Badgers worked the ball inside to sublimely skilled forward Frank Kaminsky, and he worked toward the basket or kicked to an open wing. Kaminsky had 19 points and 3 assists.
Wisconsin was even better on defense. Baylor never found open shots. Guards accustomed to slashing through the lane encountered smartly played help defense, which pushed them right toward Kaminsky. He had six blocks. Baylor hit 31 percent of its shots.
Now, maybe the country understands this much: Bo Ryan is the most underrated coach in the country.
He’s also one of the most interesting characters in college coaching.
Ryan likes to be pretend he’s irascible. A Philly guy, he’s actually just blunt. You almost always get an honest assessment of his team when you ask him for one. He’s witty, too, but maybe that’s lost on the rest of the country because he coaches in the same conference as Tom Izzo.
A trip to the Final Four would elicit Ryan’s best quips. His dry humor would be the perfect antidote for the overly charged atmosphere around the end of the tournament.
And how could you not love a guy with a smile like this?
Yes, that’s Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who watched Thursday’s game and stopped in the locker room afterward.
Which prompted this comment: “Every time a team from Wisconsin beats a team nicknamed Bears, this guy Rodgers is in the winning locker room.”
(Is there a Rodgers photobomb in the Badgers’ future tonight?)
Earlier this season, USA Today’s Eric Prisbell pointed out:
The sixth-ranked Badgers (12-0) have done it the way they have always done it under 13th-year coach Bo Ryan, highlighting unglamorous skills like precise passing angles, adequate spacing and strong pivots. Ryan’s no-frills system is as effective as ever, even if no jump stops will find there way onto YouTube.
“It is not pretty,” says sophomore Sam Dekker, the team’s second-leading scorer. “It has some rough edges on it. But it’s what we do. It’s not so sexy. But winning is fun. If it’s not sexy, that’s fine with us. We’re not going to be dunking on everyone.”
What they will do is make more free throws than their opponents attempt (196-166). They will be among the nation’s leaders in fewest turnovers per game, as they are this season (third). And they will allow opponents so few open looks at the basket that Wisconsin players say they see the frustration in opponents’ facial expressions and body language.
“There is not this secret magic wand that we wave,” says Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard, who has worked with Ryan for two decades. “You follow the system. You work the plan … People get caught up in the flash and the glitter, those types of plays. When you simplify it and slow things down, frame by frame, it’s the basketball fundamentals that come into play.”
Ryan, 65, is among the most accomplished coaches yet to reach the Final Four. He has never finished worse than fourth in the rugged Big Ten. Iowa assistant Sherman Dillard says Ryan has ingrained his system into his players to such an extent that it’s like a “religion the way they play it. They don’t deviate.”
“If you go across the country, take anybody – I don’t care if you’re talking about (Mike) Krzyzewski, I don’t care if you’re talking about (John) Calipari,” Marquette assistant Brad Autry says. “A system. Recruit to that system. Be consistent with that system. I don’t know if there is anybody better than him (Ryan). Year after year, the names change, but it is the same.”
There is also a poignant fact noted by ESPN.com’s Rick Reilly:
Saturday will be 100 hours long for Bo Ryan.
For one, he and his 2-seed Wisconsin Badgers will play for a spot in the Final Four, and Final Fours are to Bo Ryan what fruit was to Tantalus.
Ryan has the highest conference winning percentage of any 10-year-plus Big Ten coach in history — .706 — yet he’s never made it to a Final Four. Thirteen Dances. Six Sweet 16s. Two Elite Eights. Zero Final Fours. The coyote never gets the roadrunner, and Bo Ryan never gets the Final Four.
For two, it’s his dad’s birthday. Butch Ryan — his unforgettable, never-met-a-stranger, life-of-any-party dad — would’ve been 90 Saturday. Butch, who died last August, was always Bo’s plus-one at Final Fours. Why? Because nobody could mend a heavy heart like Butch Ryan.
Butch laughed so hard one night at the Final Four he had to go to the hospital. He’d fly cheesesteaks in from his hometown of Philadelphia. Got in a dance-off one year with MC Hammer. Jumped up on stage with a trio of female singers in New Orleans once and sang so well with them that they let him keep all the tips, which he used to buy everybody hurricanes. Was voted Final Four All-Lobby every year.
Forget that. He was All-Bo every season. When his son coached the 1998 Division III UW-Platteville team to a 30-0 national championship (one of his four national titles there), Butch snuck into the background of the team celebration photo and held up a sign that said, “BRING ON DUKE.” Bo didn’t even know until the pictures came back.
Butch was a one-man Optimist Club. He always called Bo “Ace,” and every time the tournament knocked Bo on his butt, Butch would take him by the neck at the Final Four and go, “Ace, you’re gonna get here next year, just you watch.”
But Butch never did get to watch.
“More people knew my dad at Final Fours than me,” Ryan remembers after his Badgers crushed Baylor 69-52 Thursday night to make it to another Elite Eight. “It was our bonding time. Hell, I always had time there ’cause I’ve never been able to play in one of the dang things. But now he’s gone and it just seems like maybe this year …”
He didn’t finish the sentence, but you can. After all those years of going with his dad to the Final Four, all those years of Butch cushioning the blow of not making it, here Ace is with maybe his best chance yet to make one, and no Butch.
“It’s hard, man,” Bo says. “Sometimes I walk by all the pictures of him on the wall at home and, you know, it’s just hard. … But if we go, I gotta figure he’ll be there somewhere. No way he wouldn’t make it.” …
“We want that for Coach,” Badgers forward Sam Dekker says. “And he wants that for us.”
“I’d be honored to be part of that,” said 7-footer Frank Kaminsky.
Ryan, ever superstitious, won’t go there much, so that’s why you ask his old friend Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez.
“Oh, he wants it bad,” Alvarez says. “Because, I would think he’s gotta get tired of hearing that bulls—. I mean, he’s a great coach. He goes down to the wire against Syracuse (in 2012), it goes down to the last possession, and it doesn’t go his way. Now all of a sudden he’s a lousy coach?”
No, Bo Ryan is a very good coach, partly because Butch taught him that — and a few tricks, too.
Such as the time Bo’s Little League coach had to work, and Butch took over. They were down 11-5 in the top of the last inning and nobody on the team seemed too worked up about it. So Butch had them pack everything up — bats, balls, all of it. If they didn’t care, he didn’t care. “Everybody on the team starts yelling, crying,” Bo remembers. “Not me. I knew what he was doing. … Sure as I’m sitting here, we come back and win 12‑11. So I learned early — sometimes you send messages in different ways.”
Bo’s message to Wisconsin this close to paradise?
“Thank you for giving me 40 more minutes of basketball with you guys,” he told his team.
As you know, I did not pick the Badgers to get to the Elite Eight. Thanks to the hockey team’s season’s ending last night, and thanks to my national champion pick, Louisville, getting punched out last night, I can enjoy tonight’s game undistracted by another game or my brackets, since my brackets are now officially as demolished as Baylor’s season.
Only one more thing to say: