NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. – Bo Ryan is a crusty, old-school coaching lifer who likes to make big deals out of small things and small deals out of big things. Like going to his first-ever Final Four last spring, for example. Kind of a big deal, right?
“Let me tell you something,” Ryan said as we sat courtside in July during the Nike EYBL Peach Jam, one of the premier events of the summer recruiting circuit. “I just got a text message from a kid who was a walk-on for us. He’s been trying to get into Wisconsin’s law school, but he couldn’t get in right away. So he just texted me that he got accepted. Something like that is a far bigger deal to me than the Final Four. I know you guys get excited about that, but I get excited about working with young men.”
By that definition, don’t expect much excitement in Madison next season. Sure, the Badgers are returning all but one player from that Final Four squad and will enter the 2014-15 with greater expectations than perhaps at any time in their history. But that’s no big deal, right? Nothing to see here.
Somewhere beneath the crust, Ryan, 66, knows that’s not true, yet he is steadfast that those changed perceptions will not change him. The way he sees it, his primary job next season will be to make sure they also don’t change his players. “I like the respect people have shown to our guys. That, to me, is rewarding,” Ryan said. “The only thing that matters is how much better we can be. If my guys stay coachable, keep their minds, ears and eyes open, I think we can be OK.”
That quote speaks to the culture of improvement that Ryan has established as well as any college basketball coach in recent memory. You will find no better example than Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky, the 7-foot center who was the team’s leading scorer (13.9 ppg) and rebounder (6.3) last season. The previous season, Kaminsky barely played 10 minutes per game. He became just the latest in a long line of Ryan players who patiently waited their turn on the bench their first couple of seasons, worked hard to improve, and were ready to excel when opportunity knocked. That kind of model is becoming increasingly rare in the age of one-and-done recruits and rampant transferring, but it is the Wisconsin Way. “Frank has been an inspiration to the guys with how he came along, how hard he worked,” Ryan said. “When you have a guy improve like that, it sends a message to your younger players. It didn’t happen by accident. There’s a lot of work involved.”
It was no foregone conclusion that Kaminsky would come back to Madison for his senior year. Ryan told me that he spoke with numerous NBA people in an effort to ascertain where Kaminsky would have gone in the draft, but he did not hear any guarantees that he would be in the first round. (Though it’s hard to imagine that wouldn’t have been the case.) Either way, Kaminsky was not inclined to take the leap. He was not a big-time high school recruit, so he did not enter college with designs on turning pro early. Last season was his first opportunity to experience high-level success. Given what Wisconsin has coming back, it’s understandable why Kaminsky would want to take one more shot at an NCAA title. “I’m not surprised he didn’t go. I really think Frank enjoys college,” Ryan said. “He was in no rush, and I think he believes he can get better. I kinda like that in a young man.”
For all of Kaminsky’s excellence, it is possible he won’t even be Wisconsin’s best frontcourt player next season. That’s because Sam Dekker has been having a terrific summer. The 6-foot-7 junior from Sheboygan, Wisc., was one of the most heralded recruits Ryan has ever signed (he was ranked No. 13 in his high school class by Rivals.com and was a Parade All-American), but during his first two years in Madison, Dekker too often lacked assertiveness. But in July at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas, Dekker, who was the Badgers’ third-leading scorer (12.4) and second-leading rebounder (6.1) last season, dominated the college workouts. Ryan did not attend the LeBron camp, but he heard all about it. “I talked to Sam and I said, ‘I heard you were scoring. But how was your defense?’” Ryan said. “He said, ‘I knew you were gonna ask that.’ But he is playing with some confidence. Sam believes he can make something happen.”
Wisconsin was incredibly fortunate last season with respect to injuries. Ryan put the same starting five on the court for all 38 games. Besides Kaminsky and Dekker, two other starters return: 6-2 senior guard Traevon Jackson and 6-3 guard Josh Gasser, a fifth-year senior. The only player who graduated was 6-1 guard Ben Brust, the team’s second-leading scorer who converted 39 percent of his attempts from three-point range and 90 percent from the foul line. While Ryan was quick to point out that replacing Brust won’t be easy – “He stretched defenses, which made it harder to cover in the post. That helped Frank,” he said – Ryan was just as quick to offer an unlikely replacement for the long-range marksmanship: Nigel Hayes, the bruising, 6-7, 250-pound power forward who was the team’s sixth man last season.
Hayes’ emergence as a low-post rebounder and Glue Guy helped spur the Badgers to their second-half surge, but Ryan told me Hayes has dramatically expanded his game. “He’s got three-point range now,” Ryan said. “We did a transition drill recently where we set the shot clock at 17 seconds. Over six possessions, he hit five threes. So that’s added another dimension to his game.”
(Let us pause here a moment to marinate on the revelation that Bo Ryan, that old-school plodder, conducts fast-break drills with a 17-second shot clock. Feels good, doesn’t it?)
Who, then, will be next season’s Frank Kaminsky – the next next-man-up? Given how many veterans are returning, there won’t be much opportunity for playing time, but there is no shortage of candidates. Bronson Koenig is a 6-3 sophomore guard who was seventh man last year and scored 11 first-half points in the Final Four against Kentucky. Duje Dukan, a 6-9 forward, is a fifth-year senior who averaged eight minutes off the bench last year. Sophomore forward Vitto Brown only played 44 minutes last year, but he could be ready to take a step forward. Ryan seemed especially excited about Ethan Happ, a 6-8 freshman forward from Illinois who was the MVP of the under-18 Albert Schweitzer Tournament, a prominent international youth event held in Germany.
The most important returnee, of course, is the man on the sideline. The more things change, the more he stays the same. For example, I asked Ryan how different life was for him now that he had finally reached his first Final Four. “I’ll tell you what’s different – I’m doing more speaking engagements,” he said with a laugh. “I guess I get recognized more, but I’m not one of the guys who likes that. I don’t get into it much. As long as I can get a home-cooked meal from my wife, things are pretty good.”
After a little more prodding, Ryan grew reflective. “The toughest part was my dad not being there,” he said. “It’s amazing that the year he passes away, we go to the Final Four.” (Ryan’s father, Butch, was a legendary youth recreation coach in their hometown of Chester, Pa., and was renowned for hanging with his son in hotel lobbies at the Final Four. He passed away two months before the season started.) Beyond his own gratification, Ryan was especially moved by the way his fellow coaches reached out to express their appreciation. “It was very heartening,” Ryan said. “I may look like I’m old and crusty, but I’m a softy inside.”
His heart may be soft, but his team is going to be awfully hard to beat. The Wisconsin Way is working, and that is a very big deal.