In the spring of 2001 when Pat Richter placed a call to Wisconsin Milwaukee head coach Bo Ryan, the Wisconsin athletic director had been through a challenging few months. Fresh off a surprising run to the 2000 Final Four as a No. 8 seed, the Badgers lost their coach when Dick Bennett decided to retire just two games into the 2000-01 season. Brad Soderberg coached the team the rest of the way that year, but it was widely assumed in basketball circles that the man that Richter — and the entire state of Wisconsin — really wanted for the job was Utah head coach Rick Majerus.
Only now, as Richter made his call to Ryan, the Utes’ coach had pulled his name from consideration for the post in Madison. The Badgers needed a Plan B immediately, and Richter had just one question for the man on the other end of the line:
“Bo, are you ready?”
“Pat, I’ve been ready.”
Bo Ryan changed the way the college game is played. Shooting is variable from game to game, but committing fewer turnovers gives your offense a higher floor from which to operate. Ryan proved it, and the sport took note more or less overnight. In 2008 Wisconsin’s very good turnover rate in conference play (17.9 percent) was actually higher than what as early as 2011 the Big Ten was recording collectively as an average rate (17.1). The speed with which this shift occurred was striking, and it suggested a healthy competitive instinct to not be the last team left still committing turnovers.
Ryan didn’t invent or discover zero-turnover ball by himself (John Beilein recorded an 11.7 percent TO rate in Big East play at West Virginia in 2006), but he was by far the style’s most effective practitioner as well as its most consistent exemplar. The 11.2 that Wisconsin posted in Big Ten competition in 2011 is the lowest figure I’ve ever seen in major-conference play, and the success of the 2015 team was fueled in no small measure by coming within a hair (11.8) of that mark.
Part of the Ryan legend involves the players who took care of the ball so well. From 2006 through to this fall, Wisconsin only brought as much top-100 talent to Madison (17.2 recruiting points) as Cal or LSU signed this year alone. Some observers watched this play out and marveled at what Ryan was able to achieve on the court. Others saw fit to find fault with his recruiting. To be sure, the two responses aren’t necessarily contradictory.
Recruiting is a self-limiting endeavor, the pursuit of a finite supply of an exterior resource (talent). You need to get the best players you can, of course, but improving your non-blue-chip program durably based primarily on recruiting success is more difficult than commonly realized. Scott Drew has pulled off that trick, I suppose, and perhaps Mark Gottfried has as well. If you can do it, by all means have at it. But history suggests it’s a fairly tough nut to crack as long as Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and Arizona are all alive and well and competing for those same players.
On the other hand coaching prowess is both intrinsic and renewable, where “coaching” is understood to encompass the 95 percent of the endeavor that falls outside of so-called bench coaching. To a degree I’ve never seen from another coach, Ryan was able to look at his team anew each season and decide on a plan to win. For example in the Kaminsky-Dekker era the coach was justly celebrated as a Bill Walsh-style guru of offense, but as recently as 2013 Wisconsin was forbiddingly outstanding on defense. Ryan could win either way, depending on the hand he was dealt.
It’s tempting to assume the 2015 team was far and away Ryan’s best ever in Madison, but that’s actually a tricky call to make. Obviously that team made it the farthest — within a few possessions of a national title — and it’s true that the 2015 group is the one that most favorably impressed the KenPom ratings. But let’s at least agree to lend an ear to guys like Michael Flowers, Joe Krabbenhoft, Marcus Landry and Trevon Hughes when they make their case for the 2008 team.
That 2008 Badger team was No. 1 in the conference on both offense and defense, a feat repeated by the Badgers in 2010 — and by no other Big Ten team since. It so happens that reaching the Elite Eight eluded Ryan’s grasp from 2006 through 2013, but he had some awfully good teams during that time. This was the stretch where Wisconsin was branded as an underperforming disappointment for losing to lower-seeded mid-majors like Davidson and Butler. Then again subsequent experience suggests Stephen Curry and Brad Stevens are pretty good at what they do.
Naturally Wisconsin’s style wasn’t to everyone’s spectating tastes, but any attempt to elevate this sort of personal preference into a public-service bulletin to the effect that Ryan was truly bringing ruin to our hitherto beautiful game tended to be rather overwrought and fatuous. There’s nothing insidious or sport-threatening about not committing a turnover, and some of Ryan’s most eager acolytes in this one respect have been coaches who otherwise choose very different styles and paces.
I confess I don’t fully understand why Wisconsin has this in-season departure tradition thing, but it has certainly served the Badgers well to this point. The speed with which the master of slow-paced basketball has gone from active to retired somehow feels right, even if it is disorienting to see Wikipedia already referring to him in the past tense. At his introductory press conference 14 years ago Ryan joked that he wasn’t his wife’s first choice either, and the rest is history. He was ready.