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Fundamental Mediocrity


Thoughts on Bo-sketball – and what should come next for Wisconsin

@BreakTheHuddle

Bo Ryan enjoys privileges that NBA coaches dream of. Such is life in the NCAA. Coaches are given complete control to recruit the players they want, without the pesky meddling of a general manager or an owner falling in love with someone who doesn’t fit the coach’s system. A recent example of this in the NBA is Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni’s resignation, due in part to his relationship with Carmelo Anthony. D’Antoni’s offense, predicated on ball movement and quick decisions, didn’t jive with an isolation scorer like Carmelo. It was a terrible fit from the beginning.

But Bo doesn’t have such worries on his mind. The life of a college basketball coach is a stressful one, don’t get me wrong – the recruiting game sounds like a Sisyphean task – but at least Bo can scope out the kids he wants and develop the ones he gets. Refusal to comply with Bo-sketball (more on this in a minute or two) means you’re either out of a scholarship or done at Wisconsin. His teams have a certain, defined style which never fails to manifest itself season after season.

The lack of results calls his strategy into question, however. Tonight’s loss leaves Ryan with just one Elite 8 appearance in his eleven seasons on the Badgers’ bench. This is the second straight year he’s been bounced in the Sweet 16 and the fourth time overall – he’s been ousted in the Second Round five times and failed to win a tournament game in 2005. For all his consistency and the ‘solid fundamentals’ of his teams, they sure don’t seem built to win in March, a trend that needs to be identified as a troubling one.

The Badgers made the 2000 Final Four. Other than the 1941 National Title team, no Wisconsin squad has ever made it as far as they did.

Perhaps I need more historical perspective to make me a little more grateful. Bo Ryan is the coach of a program that didn’t make a single NCAA tournament between 1947 and 1993. In the first 100 years of Wisconsin basketball, they won 5 NCAA tournament games, total. During the 50 years prior to Bo’s arrival in Madison the team finished above .500 just 18 times, and the program’s only real highlights were a National Title in 1941 (while the game was still segregated) and a Cinderella run to the Final Four in the 1999-2000 season. Sustained success was non-existent in Madison prior to Bo Ryan, who at least has made the NCAA tournament in each of his 11 seasons there.

Is it alright as fans to ask for more? What Badger fans have in Bo is a man who will run a clean program, and one who will be a consistent presence in the postseason. Should that be enough? Or is it time to start wondering if we’d really rather have Bo-sketball than a snake-oil salesman such as John Calipari? The wins might not count in the record books once Calipari leaves a school – but at least its fans were near the pinnacle of the sport for a season.

First of all, we need to define what Bo-sketball is.

Bo Ryan’s style of play is predicated upon three things – 1) slow down the game by eating up the shot clock, accomplished by moving the ball and only settling for what most teams would consider to be wide open looks, 2) have an experienced point guard who turns the ball over very little and 3) play outstanding defense.

The point guards are in direct control of two of those three criteria, and Bo’s had some very good ones during his tenure: Devin Harris (2001-03), Kammron Taylor (2004-06), Trevon Hughes (2007-09) and Jordan Taylor (2010-present). Each of the four were brought along relatively slowly, molded, broken into Bo’s line of thinking. Hughes was a particularly striking case of a player being tamed – early on, he was a scoring point guard, pushing the ball and shooting freely. By the time he was a senior, he was an efficient machine.

Secondly, let’s compare Bo to some other top coaches.

All the following records are from Bo Ryan’s first season with the Badgers (2001-02) to the present.

Name Record Postseason Notes
Bo Ryan: Wisconsin 268-101 1 Elite 8
Jim Calhoun: UConn 288-102 3 Final 4s, 2 National Titles
Jim Boeheim: Syracuse 290-95 1 Final 4, 1 National Title
Roy Williams: KS, NC 319-79 5 Final 4s, 2 National Titles
Tom Izzo: Michigan St 264-115 4 Final 4s
Mike Kryzewski: Duke 321-68 2 Final 4s, 1 National Title
Bill Self: Illionois, Kansas 317-68 1 Final 4, 1 National Title
John Calipari: Memphis, KY 329-68 2 Final 4s
Billy Donovan: Florida 263-91 2 Final 4s, 2 National Titles

The coaches who are most comparable to Bo, record-wise, are Calhoun, Boeheim, Izzo and Donovan, which is very impressive company. The problem is, all four of those coaches have won a national title since Bo took over at Wisconsin (except for Izzo, who won one in the 1999-2000 season).

Ryan defenders may begin to make a counterargument centered upon talent disparity. The other schools listed above are traditional basketball powerhouses, factories for producing NBA talent. The tally of draftees the other coaches have had during Ryan’s tenure stacks up like this:

Name

Number of NBA Draftees, 2001-present

Number of Consensus All-Americans, 2001 – present

Bo Ryan: Wis

3

3

Jim Calhoun: UConn

11

3

Jim Boeheim: Syracuse

9

3

Roy Williams: KS, NC

12

5

Tom Izzo: Michigan St

5

1

Mike Krzyzewski: Duke

14

7

Bill Self: Illionois, Kansas

15

4

John Calipari: Memphis, KY

15

5

Billy Donovan: Florida

10

1

The bigger, more traditional powers with big time coaches have an upper hand in recruiting amongst the top high school players in the country; this much is true. Ultimately, it is about bringing talent into your program, because talent wins games. Despite the notion that college basketball is a coach’s sport, the teams that win titles have NBA talent playing for them when they cut down the nets. Even the coach closest to Ryan on that graph – Tom Izzo – had four future NBA players on his 1999-2000 National championship team.

It’s not just the lack of talent that’s alarming – it’s the fact that Bo-sketball doesn’t translate into victories when it counts.

Bo Ryan wants slow, low-scoring games, with intense possessions, excellent defense, and superior ball-handling from his point guards. He works very hard to ensure he gets what he wants out of his players. Below is a chart of the pertinent categories to what I am talking about – points per game (PPG), opponents points per game (OPP PPG), and turnovers (TOV), all measured by the team’s NCAA rank in the given category.

YEAR TEAM

PPG

OPP PPG

TOV

2001-02 Wisconsin

242nd

54th

71st

2002-03 Wisconsin

163rd

5th

9th

2003-04 Wisconsin

195th

3rd

4th

2004-05 Wisconsin

205th

12th

51st

2005-06 Wisconsin

119th

100th

18th

2006-07 Wisconsin

142nd

9th

59th

2007-08 Wisconsin

206th

1st

116th

2008-09 Wisconsin

258th

11th

5th

2009-10 Wisconsin

212th

4th

1st

2010-11 Wisconsin

200th

5th

1st

The categories Wisconsin excels at are the ones important to Bo Ryan. A glance at the next chart will reveal the same categories amongst the teams who won the NCAA tournament for each of the years listed above.

YEAR TEAM

PPG

OPP PPG

TOV

2001-02 Maryland

4th

176th

243rd

2002-03 Syracuse

14th

165th

279th

2003-04 UConn

17th

56th

313th

2004-05 North Carolina

1st

217th

328th

2005-06 Florida

22nd

50th

327th

2006-07 Florida

11th

42nd

327th

2007-08 Kansas

13th

21st

305th

2008-09 North Carolina

2nd

276th

248th

2009-10 Duke

26th

28th

179th

2010-11 UConn

75th

84th

246th

What we see is a lesson in opposites. What the champions do well is score; what they don’t necessarily excel at is defending and taking care of the basketball. Wisconsin doesn’t score, but defends well and takes excellent care of the basketball. The numbers are even starker when the averages are laid out:

YEARS TEAM

PPG

OPP PPG

TOV

2001-11 Wisconsin

194th

20th

33rd

2001-11 Champions

18th

111th

279th

Not only is Bo Ryan failing to attract elite talent to Madison, he’s also failing to teach a style that can win a national championship. There may be some truth to the idea that scoring and national recognition (such as the All-America votes) have a symbiotic relationship – scoring attracts headlines, boosting the profile of the team and players involved, thereby making it more likely they’ll be voted as All-Americans, etc. Tom Izzo’s got a similar ‘profile’ to Bo Ryan, if you look at the statistics laid out above – is it possible he’s just a better tactician in tournament games? If Wisconsin had made a Final Four under Bo, would we even care about any of this?

Should Bo begin recruiting elite talent? Or should he stick to his M.O.?

Basketball is a game where talent wins, above all else. The tournament structure makes us forget that, sometimes, because in a one-and-done setting Cinderella stories can be written. But when it comes down to the Final Four, the team with the most talent usually wins. Those are the ones with future NBA players on them – players who can put the ball in the hole when their team needs them to. Wisconsin hasn’t been recruiting those players, and unless Bo Ryan drastically changes his approach, I don’t believe they’ll begin to.

So, what are Badger fans to do? If the point of athletics is to ascend to the top of the sport by winning a title, then Bo’s not their best bet. Yet it’s impossible to oust a man with his track record, running a clean Division 1 Men’s Basketball program in times like these. Getting rid of Bo Ryan seems unfathomable and totally out of the question – but unfortunately, so is the idea of Wisconsin winning a national title with him at the helm, unless he’s willing to fundamentally change his approach.

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