Friday, September 02, 2005

An Ode To Bo Ryan: Dispelling the Myth of 2001-2002

Back on August 18, my friend Beau emailed me and a couple of other buddies the following message:

"Andy Katz preseason prediction: Badger's #38
USA Today preseason poll: Badgers #30
Welcome to the season of mediocrity, folks."

Reaction #1: If being ranked just outside of the top-25 by USA Today is mediocre, the standards of excellence for basketball in this state truly have come a long way since I was a kid.

Reaction #2: Katz is probably about right. Wisconsin lost a lot of key players, including its most stabilizing force (Mike Wilkinson). They’ve only got 1.5 proven Big Ten players.

Reaction #3: Wisconsin will do better than that. Bo Ryan won’t let them be a fringe tournament team.

Indeed, I must confess that I am a ridiculous fan of Bo Ryan. I’m not without good reason, though. And because the similarities to this upcoming season and a prior Bo Ryan season seem striking to me, I think it’s a good time to reflect on a season that is often remembered incorrectly, robbing Ryan of some of his due credit. I’d like for you to join me on a trip back a few years to one of the most magical Wisconsin Badger basketball seasons that I’ve ever seen: 2001-2002. The nation was still sighing in relief and trying to deplete their stockpiles of water and canned goods now that Y2K had come to pass without incident. A young Britney Spears was at the top of her game, assaulting the pop charts with regularity. Your humble author had just obtained second row seats in the Wisconsin student section, the closest he had ever sat to NCAA action. And the Wisconsin basketball team, just two years removed from a Final Four appearance, was entering a season that, for a variety of reasons, appeared bleak. In November the Badgers looked like a team that would struggle to obtain a winning record. By March, they were bringing home a share of the Big Ten regular season championship and prepping for the NCAA tournamant.

Of course, as today most people just look at the success, and the great players that developed from that team, and don’t recall the difficult situation that existed at the beginning of the 2001-2002 season. Most people look back at the 2001-2002 season and think “Wow, Bo Ryan really walked into a nice situation. He had a team that went to the Final Four two years earlier and a program on the rise.” This analysis, however, ignores the fact that Ryan’s roster during 2001-2002 contained only three players who played that Final Four season, none of whom were at the core of the miracle Final Four squad.

Therein lies what was Ryan’s biggest problem at the time. The senior class for the 2000-2001 Wisconsin basketball team was perhaps the most successful class in school history. Mike Kelley, Mark Vershaw, Andy Kowske, Roy Boone and Maurice Linton lifted Wisconsin to heights not seen since the 1940s. And all played significant minutes from the second that they stepped on the floor as freshmen (with the exception of Boone, who was a junior college transfer). Of course, all of these men were gone now, along with three-point specialist sophomore Ricky Bower, a substitute who had logged a smattering of meaningful minutes the season before and had opted to transfer to Brigham Young in the offseason. This core group (along with a couple seldom-used reserved who also did not return) had accounted for 70% of the minutes played, 69% of the points scored, 64% of the rebounds grabbed, and a staggering 76% of the assists dished out in 2000-2001 (Yes, I actually ran these numbers. I am a nerd.). Thus, Bo Ryan had to replace roughly three-quarters of the production of the prior year’s roster. Only two of his players had been in the regular rotation. Only one was a starter.

The challenge didn’t stop there, however. Medical problems continually befell the Badgers. It began in September when Julian Swartz, a talented forward who had sat out the prior season to seek treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, abandoned plans to return to the team and decided to transfer to lower-profile UW-Green Bay as he sorted out his illness. Shortly thereafter Latrell Fleming, a Milwaukee area guard who had been drawing solid reviews and at the time was largely considered more immediately ready to play than fellow freshman Devin Harris, was diagnosed with a heart ailment that ended his basketball career. Just when it seemed that nothing else could go wrong, November came, and freshman forward Andreas Helmigk tore his ACL, leaving the Badgers painfully thin up front. With scholarship limitations from the school’s infamous Shoebox scandal, there weren’t exactly tons of extra bodies running around. By the time all was said and done, Bo Ryan would enter the season with 8 scholarship players, 6 walk-ons, and 2 assistant coaches who would log lots of playing minutes in practice.

Meanwhile, Bo Ryan was trying to figure out how to handle his first season. The pressure was there. Wisconsin fans had tasted winning, and though they might not have expected it with the 2001-2002 roster, wins would be expected soon. Add to that the fact that Ryan was wasn’t exactly a consensus hire. Athletic Director Pat Richter decided not to retain Brad Soderburg, who had done an adequate job the previous season as interim head coach following the early-season retirement of Dick Bennett. Wisconsin was going after a big name. After failing to sign such coaches as Rick Majerus and Ben Braun, Wisconsin looked to Ryan. An assistant coach under horrific former Badger coach Steve Yoder, Ryan, though wildly successful at the division 3 level, wasn’t exactly what the public was looking for. Half of the fans were upset that Soderburg, a solid coach, wasn’t retained. The other half were embarrassed that Wisconsin had gone after a nationally known coach and completely been shut out. (Let the record show, however, that my advocacy of Ryan, which dates back to 1998, never wavered. I have to point this out for the millionth time, as it is one of the rare times when I was actually right about something.)

So the season opened, and the coach that no one wanted looked to craft a rotation from his heavily depleted roster. There were a few good things—junior guard Kirk Penney had been a starter the prior year and brought athleticism and a good outside shot. Senior Charlie Wills was a fifth year senior who despite a propensity for bonehead plays, had logged a fair amount of court time during his career.

After Penney and Wills, however, things got murkier. The next most experienced man was senior point guard Travon Davis, who had been used only occasionally to this point in his career, and was known to play out of control at times. Sophomores Freddie Owens and Dave Mader were next in line with experience, and both were seldom-used reserves as freshman. Owens was thought by most to be primarily a defensive specialist, and Mader, despite committing to play for the Badgers early in his high school career, was generally thought of as something of a project.

Then there were two freshmen—Devin Harris and Mike Wilkinson. Of course, we now know them as Wisconsin’s most recent lottery pick, and one of Wisconsin’s most consistent players ever. As decorated as they each ended up, it’s easy to forget that even they were once freshmen. Both suffered from the same basic issue—severely thin bodies. Admittedly, Harris is probably the best high school player that I’ve ever seen in person, but on any team with enough able bodies I would not have been shocked to see him redshirt just to bulk up a bit in order to face the rigors of college ball. Wilkinson, in fact, had redshirted the season before to bulk up—only he didn’t look like he had added tons of mass during his redshirt season. His now-sturdy frame was nearly impossible to imagine when the 2001-2002 tipped off. He was still a 6’8” guy who was stronger on the perimeter than in the lane, though the needs of his team, as we know, would eventually turn him into a rock-solid interior presence. Neither player exactly had the body type that would be expected to hold up for an entire NCAA season while playing oodles of minutes.

The final scholarship player was Neil Plank, who frankly, I knew little about going into the season. As time passed, though, the Badgers would opt for a seven man rotation, leaving Plank as the only scholarship player not to log major minutes. Clearly, Plank was not to be a key cog for a Big Ten team. My hope for the year was to avoid any injuries (particularly in the frontcourt, where a sophomore version of Dave Mader was somehow miraculously starting for a division one team) and slink out with some dignity.

Sound rough? Let’s summarize the above obstacles Ryan had to face entering the season:

1) Loss of eight players (six of whom were in the main rotation) who accounted for roughly 70% of the team’s production the prior season.
2) Loss of three players, all of whom had a likelihood of contributing immediately, to medical issues briefly before the season.
3) A reduced number of scholarships due to an infraction during the previous coach’s regime. (Resulting, along with the other issues, in having only 8 scholarship players.)
4) Heightened fan expectations from a few recent seasons of winning.
5) A fan base that wanted someone else to have his job.

Not exactly a dream situation, if you ask me.

The start of the season went somewhat as expected, with four of the first five games going down as losses. In the typically less-strenuous non-conference season, this did not appear a good sign. Eventually, though, things began to click. I think my first inclination that this team had the potential to be better than a mediocre, break-even squad was during their game against Temple. Sure, no one could guard Lynn Greer, who had the best offensive performance of anyone I’ve ever seen play at the Kohl Center, and Devin Harris took 20 3-point shots, making roughly three of them, but Temple was a legit team, and the Badgers took them to overtime before eventually losing.

Things about this team were different. Travon Davis, the previously little-used point guard, took to Ryan’s swing offense and became the best sub 6-foot post player that ever lived. Charlie Wills stopped making the boneheaded plays that he was so prone to, and became the team’s leader. Neither player looked anything like the player he was in prior seasons.

Kirk Penney continued as a solid outside shooter, but developed the ability to score in even more ways. Freddie Owens shed the title of one-dimensional defensive specialist and occasionally had a scoring outburst. Mike Wilkinson and Devin Harris continually learned on the job what their roles were and how to succeed. And Dave Mader at least remained a fan favorite, and perfected his jumper from just inside the top of the key.

The improvement wasn’t instant, but it was continuous. And the team won. They continued to win. And eventually the team that entered the season with an unpopular choice for coach, only two players who had logged significant minutes, and a sudden loss of three players for unique medical reasons found itself with a Big Ten championship and a birth in the NCAA tournament. Sure, it wasn’t the strongest year ever for the Big Ten, but if you’d asked just about anyone in November if Wisconsin would be anywhere near a championship, even in a weak year, they’d have laughed at you.

So yes, I absolutely love Bo Ryan, and the 2001-2002 season is responsible for that. I’ve seen some great coaching feats in this state (notably, Tom Crean quickly bringing glory back to Marquette, and Bruce Pearl making national waves at a school that was playing in a glorified high school gym when he arrived), but none as great as Ryan’s 2001-2002 season. And while I think that you’re nuts if you think the Badgers are any better than Andy Katz predicts right now, with Bo Ryan around you might not look so nuts in March.

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