How do these guys keep winning: Consistency of Wisconsin Ball

Mike Wilkinson was born to play for the Bo Ryan swing offense.

Yes, we are aware that Wisconsin is slumping right now. Three consecutive losses isn’t familiar territory for a Bo Ryan coached team. Despite the losing skid, one of the TYS’ writers tries to explain his view about the consistency of Badger Ball.

Download from the mind of AJ-One.

Once again my procrastination has made the timing of this writing less than opportune. Yet another excruciating football loss for the Badgers in the Rose Bowl, followed right up by an overtime basketball loss to Michigan State where a game-tying shot was disallowed by replay, has me wondering which member of the UW athletic department recently made a comment about some timekeeper’s goat (the latter being a Chicago Cubs jinx reference for those unfamiliar). So oddly the subject of this article is the winning ways of UW basketball, with the team now on a 3-game skid with the loss to Michigan. But never fear, I’ll write on and can use the current struggles as subject matter for a follow up to this one.

So, just how has the UW basketball program been able to accomplish such a consistent level of success over the last 15 years after nearly a century of futility? Some of these thoughts will sound familiar to those who follow NCAA hoops on TV and have heard that commentary, but my aim is to provide some fresh food for thought as well.

Find what works and stick with it

This is the essence of what has made the program successful, starting with the arrival of Dick Bennett from Green Bay and then taken to another level by Bo Ryan. Both coaches stressed team defense first, along with a deliberate style of play that limits the number of possessions of the opponent. Ryan also added an extreme focus on limiting turnovers such that his team is always at or near the top of the nation in that category. In fact, after a nearly perfect game with 2 turnovers a few years back, he still spent the majority of the film session with the team going over how those 2 miscues could be cleaned up!

Ok fine, but what’s so great about that?

Every coach has a system and a vision, most different than others. Most coaches dream of having players that buy into the team concept over individual stardom and their own career aspirations. Makes their job that much easier, and wins easier to come by as well. The amazing thing about the UW success is that they have consistently been able to get 18-22 year olds to buy into this idea year after year. The selling point is a slew of consecutive NCAA tournament berths, which resonates with this age group being one of the target markets of March Madness.

Playing this deliberate system is a choice, and one that fits into a nice niche within today’s college basketball, where in many other places revolves around recruiting star talent with eyes on a quick path to the NBA or individual accolades. For one, it gives opponents a style unique and therefore difficult to handle when they face the Badgers. Further, it requires a different type of player to fit into. And that allows UW to recruit and land several players who aren’t heavily sought after by other schools, even those that surround them in the Big Ten, and within the state of Wisconsin given the different style Big East rival Marquette plays. As long as there are 6’10” big men who can shoot the 3 (and aren’t in the athletic range of Hakeem Olajawon), and heady guards who can do the same and don’t mind sharing the ball, all of whom will play defense for you, UW can supplement them with an occasional slasher and keep filling the pipeline.

The unique nature of the players needed to fit this particular system, from the guards that can post up to the big men who can take you outside, produces difficult matchups for opponents to contend with.

Sure, but you can’t win without good talent …

One of the few times Wisconsin's guards (Mike Kelley) make an athletic move!

I couldn’t agree more, and Wisconsin gets its share. These aren’t just a bunch of hicks from out of Hoosiers pulling all this off. While there certainly are plenty of role players, Ryan has consistently had star power in nearly every lineup he has trotted out. Starting with Devin Harris, through Alando Tucker, Jon Leuer, now to Jordan Taylor, within the also-rans and blue-collar guys there is some one who can carry the team and win a game for you.

Another trademark of the UW system is player development. Tom Izzo, among others, has said that he doesn’t know of a player that has played for Bo Ryan that hasn’t improved significantly over a 4-year span (well, I can think of a slight few, but no one goes 100 for 100). I believe this also helps as a selling point. The line spoken in your living room is not “we need you to come in and star right away to keep us at an elite level” (although also an attractive proposition), but rather “come in and play for the name on the front of the jersey and you’ll eventually be part of a year in and year out NCAA tournament success story”.

I get it, so why aren’t more programs doing this?

Well, there are a few, but not many. The most recent example is Butler. Sure they play in the mid-major Horizon League, but consecutive final four appearances and years of playing the big boys tough shows that such an approach has worked for them amidst a lot of recruiting competition around them in Indiana. Bill Carmody has had some success with the approach at Northwestern, but still seeking that first NCAA bid. Others that come to mind are the programs Dick Bennett, followed by son Tony, built after leaving Wisconsin. Washington State put a few grinding teams into the dance before Tony left there for Virginia. And now the Cavaliers look to have a team that can start to duplicate that success in the ACC.

But the lack of more programs like this show that it’s not as straightforward as it would seem. It’s difficult to sell recruits on a defense-first team concept where you may put in 20 one night and not again for half a season, as the particular game dictates. And in most places used to success, or at least major conference type talent, this deliberate style of play without the flash wouldn’t sell tickets and put fans in the seats. That’s especially true with today’s short leashes on coaches to win right away and bring dollars in, so going outside the box is a bit of a gamble in building or sustaining a program. Although tickets for UW basketball are nearly as scarce as scoring a seat at Lambeau Field, so maybe more programs should think about it.

Once Bo Ryan eventually calls it a career, it will be interesting to see if there are many other major college coaches who follow this blueprint. Young coaches like Tony Bennett and Matt Painter are having some success with it, but they are few and far between. While turning on an UNC/Kentucky game provides fabulous entertainment, it’s also a treat to see team basketball perfected the way winning basketball was meant to be played. For now, Big Ten fans should appreciate and enjoy the chance to witness a unique brand of basketball as an opportunity to break from the ordinary.

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