A Final Look at Wisconsin’s Two-Year Run

Posted by Alex Moscoso on April 16th, 2015

It’s been more than a week since the final buzzer went off at Lucas Oil Stadium, signaling the end of the National Championship game, another Duke national title, and the last moments of an incredible two-year run from the unlikeliest of powerhouses, Wisconsin. This year’s squad of goofy and affable but supremely talented Badgers had come up just a little short in the biggest game of their lives. With a nine-point lead, 13:23 left on the clock, and two of Duke’s best players, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, on the bench due to foul trouble, Wisconsin was certainly as close as any Big Ten team has been in 15 years to winning the crown. But there would be no story book ending. Instead, things played out as they usually do in college basketball, as the team with more talent eventually took control and won the game. Even if not on this night, Bo Ryan’s program throughout his 14 seasons in Madison has consistently bucked that trend, winning a bunch more games than what his roster suggested was possible.

Wisconsin is the most efficient offensive team in a long time. (Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News)

Wisconsin has accomplished much in the last two years, including a change in the perception of its program and coach. (Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News)

This group of Badgers was no different. Sure, they boasted the National Player of the Year in Frank Kaminsky, but the senior was a shining example of expectations exceeded — going from an unheralded high school recruit to the shiniest of college basketball stars. But in the end, the Blue Devils surged on the back of a little-used but nevertheless talented freshman, Grayson Allen. The bouncy guard effectively ended the narrative many casual fans hoped would win the day — that of a pristine basketball environment of yesteryear with in-state kids playing all four years for their home university, versus the more itinerant one-and-done culture of today. This thinking vastly oversimplifies the makeup of both these teams and programs, of course, but it is a common sentiment in college basketball and it is one of the reasons the Badgers attracted so many new fans in their run to the Final Four.

The National Championship was not a battle of good versus evil but the game was a proxy for the growing resentment of college basketball’s transformation. To paraphrase point guard Bronson Koenig, the Badgers were a team full of “Wisconsin All-State players.” Duke, in large part thanks to the legendary Mike Krzyzewski — also the head coach of Team USA and the NBA connections that come with it — was typically stacked with draft picks at all of the key positions. Wisconsin’s Ryan, on the other hand, personified the grassroots origins of his own team. He didn’t get his first Division I coaching job until he was 53 (after winning four Division III titles at Wisconsin-Platteville), and he didn’t make it to his first Final Four until he was at the ripe old age of 66. His teams represent a philosophy predicated on a highly efficient swing offense and gritty man-to-man defense more than reliance on the talents of individual players. After beating Goliath in the form of Kentucky last Saturday, it felt like the narrative of the “Wisconsin way” under Ryan was finally going to have its long-awaited day in the spotlight. It wasn’t to be.

Despite the painful loss, this year’s team changed the perception of what the “Wisconsin way” means. Ryan had only gotten out of the Sweet Sixteen one time (2005) in the years from 2002-13. It was widely accepted conventional wisdom that his system was good for racking up a bunch of regular season wins but not to seriously compete for National Championships. After consecutive Final Four appearances where the Badgers more than held their own against loaded teams, that line of thinking seems downright silly now. Given his advanced age, Ryan may never again have a chance as good as this one to win a national title. But belief in his system and the players executing it has shown it is entirely possible to win with good if not elite talent. Wisconsin’s success gives hope to the likes of Tony Bennett at Virginia, Gregg Marshall at Wichita State and Mark Few at Gonzaga, to name a few. Talent will always rule the day to a certain extent in college basketball, but great coaching in a system that utilizes its personnel effectively can be just as dangerous.

Alex Moscoso (170 Posts)

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2 responses to “A Final Look at Wisconsin’s Two-Year Run”

  1. Tony Geinzer says:

    Even though Wisconsin did the equal of Dismantling King Saban and losing to Missouri, but, I’d be wildly optimistic if Madison was NIT. Or Big Ten being Multibids. None of our Midwest 1st Division Taxpayer Schools, including Missouri, is a likely Final 4,2,or 1, but, In Iowa, Losing Logic is worse than losing Aaron White all for Kiah, which is Shakespearean enough to make Lisa Bluder Athletic Director. But, I am happy Yogi Ferrell is doing the right thing to stay for Indiana and The Midwest, and the great state of Indiana has had stigma after stigma enter the Midwest, and it would help us Midwesterners out of the Dukes of Hazzard behavior we’ve been fed.

  2. T. Long says:

    “Love” it the way “fans” consistently want to underrate the Badgers..compared with the “One and Done’s” Let’s see: this last season major wins over Michigan State, Ohio State, North Carolina, and Kentucky…

    On, Wisconsin.

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