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Here’s hoping Wisconsin’s legacy lives on in sport long past this year

April 7, 2015 Columns No Comments

On Tuesday, the day after the 2015 NCAA Tournament’s final game, the skies in Wisconsin dawned gray and sad. It was the proverbially fitting backdrop to the mood of a state after so many of its natives watched their collegiate heroes fall just short the night before in a terrific end to this year’s NCAA tourney.

Few states have as defined of a flagship university as Wisconsin, and few get behind their state school better, as was evidenced by the mind-boggling amount of red in the crowd in Indianapolis Monday night. With a team that had unprecedented success the past two years but also was made up of so much homegrown talent, there was even more of a special attachment to this year’s Wisconsin team.

The Badgers lost to Duke 68-63, and Tuesday ought to be at least a touch sad of a day for college basketball though, too. The Wisconsin basketball team of the past couple years was one that should be treasured and remembered in the sport for a long time.

The Badgers made two straight trips to the Final Four for the first time in school history. This year’s squad was senior- and veteran-dominated, with four seniors in the rotation and not one freshman playing a big role. They ended the undefeated season of vaunted Kentucky, performing a feat some thought to be nearly impossible.

The Badgers also had a chance to be one of the sport’s most influential teams ever. A Wisconsin national title may just have been the push the sport needed to address some of its ills, some of them much-debated this year, others that need more unearthing.

Those things still could happen. But it’s a fact of life that they happen much easier, and others are more likely to copy them, when a team has “national champion” affixed to its name.

National championship or not, one can only hope Bo Ryan’s Badgers provided lessons for the sport going forward. Chief among them being that basketball coaches can, indeed, teach and coach offense and still have great success.

Since Ryan’s arrival in Madison, but even back to his days at Wisconsin-Platteville, his teams have used the swing offense, a patterned continuity-type scheme that creates mismatches and takes advantage of all-around skilled offensive players. Even when not using the swing, though, the Badgers employ a lot of cuts, as well as inversions. Inside players can play outside, and outside players can play inside.

Wisconsin players are very skilled all-around offensively, and it’s clear that they are recruited with that in mind, but also that it is developed in them by coaches. Will other coaches see this and start to put more emphasis on offensive development? Will they perhaps pass on the next “long, athletic wing” that can’t shoot but can sky to the rim in order to identify players who fit into a system? If they do recruit those types, will they force them to learn how to play all-around games, even if it’s not what they played in AAU ball?

Forget the stereotype about Wisconsin being slow and “boring,” because the efficiency statistics say it should be a no-brainer: there was no more efficient offense in the country this year. In fact, since Ken Pomeroy started tracking his efficiency numbers in 2002, the Badgers this year were the best since then, and it wasn’t even close.

It helps to have natural talent like Frank Kaminsky, but remember, Frank the Tank was nowhere near this year’s player two years ago. The Badgers became who they were through development and skill work. If coaches are trying to get better and are willing to challenge themselves to do things in different ways to succeed, then Wisconsin copycats should be spawning up everywhere.

One also hopes that Ryan’s success at Wisconsin leads to more inspiration in coaching searches, and that more schools are willing to step out on the limb in the future and do what Wisconsin-Milwaukee once did in hiring a Bo Ryan from the small college ranks.

Ryan has said “the guys I coached against in Division III could easily outcoach 90 percent of the guys in Division I.” Some of that may be pride speaking, but personally can also back up the quality of coaching after spending a number of years now at those small college levels. There is no shortage of variety in the NCAA Division II and III and NAIA ranks, no lack of scoring but also no lack of defense and distinctive, winning styles.

At the small college levels, there are plenty of coaches who can teach the game, just like Bo Ryan, or Tony Shaver (now at William & Mary), or Tim Cluess (now at Iona). The success of Ryan at Wisconsin should make it crystal clear that this is an avenue athletic directors (and it needs to be athletic directors, not search firms) should be exploring more fervently.

Finally, one also hopes that these Badgers remind coaches and players alike that they can have a good time playing this sport and still play it at a high level.

Time and again, Wisconsin players charmed at press conferences and in interviews during the NCAA Tournament. They were funny, but also intelligent, well-spoken, and terrific interviews. At a time of year when they would’ve easily been excused for having tunnel vision and being “all business,” Badger players refused to let their basketball skills define them.

There’s nothing that says coaches and teams can’t have fun and a sense of humor and still win. We are repeatedly reminded in March of just how much of a hoot Jim Valvano was, every time we see the “Survive & Advance” ESPN 30 for 30 about the 1983 North Carolina State national champions. It’s always heart-warming to see what a good time he was always having, as well as heartbreaking that he left us so quickly.

The Badgers also showed their humanity after the painful final loss Monday night. Multiple players were in tears after the loss, a tough sight to see regardless of whose side one was on.

It was Jimmy V who once said: “If you laugh, think and cry, that’s a heck of a day.” One could say the Badgers indeed had such a day on Monday. Perhaps the better analogy, though, is to note that even in defeat, the players on this Wisconsin team were showing us how well-rounded they were. College basketball could do a lot worse than to have more teams like them.

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