On most occasions when a foul is called on his team, Bo Ryan comes to a complete stop on the sideline, his mouth opens to form a small circle and he stands still in disbelief, as though his 67-year-old frame has temporarily been turned to stone. He stares straight ahead and then his eyes may dart side to side, in frantic search of someone or something that can explain what is going on.
In this, Ryan is not much different from his peers. There isn’t a coach that likes foul calls. Everyone argues them in search of an edge or perhaps a makeup whistle on the other end. What distinguishes Ryan is a greater purpose behind his reaction. He will not accept the Badgers have committed a foul, due to an ironclad conviction that he meticulously trained his team not to.
No coach in the nation has better odds of being right. The No. 1-seeded Badgers are Big Ten champions and among the final 16 teams alive in the NCAA tournament thanks a comprehensively efficient, methodical style. This includes a guiding philosophy on defense: No foul, no harm. Wisconsin has committed fewer fouls per game than any team in the country, averaging just 12 per night. Barring an uncharacteristically hands-on approach in Thursday's West regional semifinal against North Carolina, this should be the fourth straight year in which the Badgers finish in the top 5 nationally in that category.
One simple way to explain why this is the case with Wisconsin: The fewer opportunities you give an opponent to go to the line, the more you boost your chances to win. Yet the reason for avoiding fouling may be even plainer. “Because we try not to do dumb stuff,” forward Sam Dekker says. “I mean, that’s a pretty straightforward answer. We try not to be dumb. If you are dumb, and do dumb things, you hear about it. So you have to be as disciplined as you can.”
This season there is not much debating the correlation between limiting fouls and success. Of the 10 teams whistled the least on a per-game basis, seven earned NCAA tournament berths, though only Wisconsin and Notre Dame (seventh at 14.2 fouls a night) made the Sweet 16. West Virginia is a Sweet 16 club, too, despite being the most notorious hackers around, at 23.3 fouls per game. But it largely seems worthwhile to avoid the attention of officials as much as possible.
The Badgers make it a point of emphasis from the first practice: Players guarding on the perimeter must refrain from grabbing or excessive hand-checking and focus instead on improving footwork and using their lateral quickness to get in position. On the blocks, the primary goal is to prevent an entry to the post entirely. Failing that, Wisconsin frontcourt players are taught to make contact with their chest instead of a forearm or even a leg. Elbows up, arms out. And when a shot goes up, the Badgers prefer to stay planted to the ground. Thus a team with length like the 7-foot Kaminsky, the 6’9” Dekker and 6’10” reserve Duje Dukan averages just 3.4 blocks per game (173rd nationally). Dekker recalled Ryan telling his big men that if they didn’t pick up a block all season, he wouldn’t care. The Badgers coach was willing to take the tradeoff of limiting trips to the free throw line.
“There are a few pillars of the program or things that have been consistent through the years and helped us be successful,” Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard says. “And that’s one of them. They understand if they want to get on the floor and play, they’re going to have to be able to play without fouling.”
Near the locker room entrance at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., on an NCAA tournament off-day last week, Gard shrugged off how difficult this is to grasp for new players. The Badgers sitting at stalls a few feet away did not.
There is a reason freshmen typically don’t flourish in Ryan’s program. “We have such an organized defensive philosophy,” fifth-year guard Josh Gasser says. “A lot of rules you have to follow. It can be tough to learn.” The coaching staff will demand they learn it, though. Any visitors to Wisconsin practices see two assistants officiating drills and 5-on-5 periods with an eye to improper contact. They might even overcompensate with ticky-tack calls, just to calibrate the players’ mindsets properly.
And if someone isn’t picking it up, Ryan might make him pick up something else. “Hell toss them two tennis balls and say, ‘Hold these tennis balls,’ and that meant you can’t use your hands at all,” Gasser says. “It’s worked. It’s a weird little thing.”
There is not fouling, and there is not putting yourself in position to foul. On the latter, the Badgers coaches assume some responsibility as well.
First, there are the volumes of officiating knowledge stored in Ryan’s mind from nearly 1,000 games patrolling the sideline at the Division I and Division III levels. Kaminsky says the Badgers coach can cite specific calls made by individual referees years earlier—perhaps because there are so few to remember—which gives his players a point of reference on tendencies. Likewise, the game scouts from assistant coaches will address how an opponent endeavors to draw fouls and how the officials typically react to that. “They’ve been able to see what they try to do, if they try to pick up fouls in certain manners, and it’s in the report,” Kaminsky says.
Then there is the structure of the defense itself. It is no surprise that West Virginia, with its game-long full-court pressure, picks up fouls by the dozen. Wisconsin, meanwhile, averages the eighth-fewest possessions in the nation (59.4 per game) and spends 86.7% of its defensive possessions in the half-court, according to Synergy Sports Data.
Essentially, the coaches couldn’t ask players to keep their hands to themselves and simultaneously ask for 40 minutes of harassment. The system has to suit the individual instructions. “We’re not getting out on an island or trying to create large gaps,” Gard says. “We’re going to try to keep you more in front of us, and force people to have to shoot over the top of us. And not get extended where we’re out always playing defense one on one. We’re trying to make offenses play against our five set defenders as much as possible.”
His boss has always been a big baseball guy, Gard says, “So you try to play percentages.” If a team doesn’t foul and give up easy points, if it doesn’t have players on the bench due to foul trouble, then it is likely forcing tough, contested shots with its best five on the floor. It is a simple concept that is easy to grasp. And at the most fundamental level, Wisconsin tries to be good at things that don’t take talent.
Perhaps this is why Ryan’s fits of rage over foul calls are often sights to behold; it screws up his beloved percentages. In the first half of a Round of 64 win over Coastal Carolina, Dekker guarded a Chanticleers player who drove and then drop-stepped toward a shot at the rim. The Badgers’ junior was whistled for a foul after the spin move. Ryan was incensed to begin with, and then he had the good fortune of seeing a video replay on arena screens, which reinforced his stance that his player hadn't done anything to draw a whistle.
Before the ensuing free throws, Ryan began shouting at Dekker that he’d done nothing wrong, that it was good defense, that it was no foul. An official told him to pipe down. “What? I have to shout so he can hear me,” Ryan replied, and it was a wonder they didn’t call over ball boys to mop up the sarcasm dripping on the court.
“It’s more just competitive nature,” Gasser says. “You want to win so badly on every single possession that you just can’t believe that foul cost us winning that possession.”
Wisconsin finds itself in that predicament less often than any team in the country. It is a program built on avoiding the avoidable—the Badgers are also No. 1 nationally with just 7.4 turnovers per game—and fouls fall into that category. Unlike an errant pass or shoddy dribbling, however, there is only so much to control there. Wisconsin can do everything right, shuffling into position without jabbing or bumping the offensive player, and the whistle may follow anyway.
It may send their coach into a spasm of fury. But for the moments following those rare foul calls, the Badgers are well trained about hand position as well: They just throw them up in the air.
“Refs are human, too,” Kaminsky says. “We understand they also make mistakes.”