Sam Dekker is likely to be one of the Badgers' standout performers this season. (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Last week, after attempting to listen to a 10-minute explanation of Wisconsin's increase in three-point attempts over the past five seasons, my bemused wife asked simply: “Why would anyone care about that?” It was an unintentionally telling question, as the Badgers’ hoops reputation largely rests on two perceptions beyond their being an annual top-four finisher in the Big Ten: 1) The Badgers are overrated by Ken Pomeroy’s system because of the way they regularly throttle overmatched nonconference foes; and 2) They’re horribly boring to watch.
Very few people outside of Madison (and alums elsewhere) are interested in the method behind the mehness, but while the first charge has some validity and the second is very much in the eye of the beholder, the combination shortchanges the program, and head coach Bo Ryan. Ryan, who has coached pretty much everywhere, from the high school level on up, has created a consistent contender out of a formerly hapless program, and has done so in a much more flexible way than even the most devout college hoops fans would realize.
"I’ve never been a guy who simply said ‘This is how we’re going to do it, and I’m never changing,’" Ryan said last week. “So what I’ve tried is to utilize personnel for what’s there each year.”
When a coach is with a program for as long as Ryan has been at Wisconsin (he's entering his 13th season), a statistical ‘footprint’ of how he likes to coach usually becomes clear. And in Ryan’s case, there are certain inarguable tenets in the way he approaches the game. For example, in each of the past five seasons, the Badgers have been in the nation’s top five in offensive turnover percentage. They value the ball on offense better than any team in the nation. They also play extremely slowly in terms of possessions, with last season’s pace of 61.7 possessions per game (318th in Division I out of 347 teams) the fastest of the last half decade of Badgers basketball.
But, the overall approach has not been completely consistent. For a number of years, the Badgers took relatively few three-point shots and got to the free throw line a lot. Then, just as the college three-point arc was pushed out a foot further, Wisconsin started taking a lot of three-pointers. In each of the past three seasons, the Badgers have taken at least 40 percent of their field goal attempts from behind the arc. From 2006-08, that rate was never higher than 32 percent. That, mixed with a huge drop in free throw rate, is a really significant change.
“Alando Tucker was not a three-point shooter, but he holds the record for most points at the University of Wisconsin,” Ryan said. “[After Tucker and Marcus Landry,] we went to more ballscreens because of Trevon Hughes and Jordan Taylor, two guards that really could handle the ball, found teammates, and produced numbers.”
That, and the fact that the past several Wisconsin teams had big men more comfortable facing up than banging down on the block, created a shift in the way the Badgers executed out of Ryan’s standard “Swing offense.” The Badgers have still been using the positional concepts of the system, which (in very loose and simple terms) creates triangles on the ball side, with both big men and guards taking turns posting up after initial runs/cuts to the basket, but the strengths of the point guards combined with the type of big men Ryan had led to fewer field goal attempts off post-ups and more kickouts. Hence, more three-point attempts, even with the deeper arc.
“If we’re taking that many threes, the only thing I do is I break down all the threes and say, ‘OK, how many came on drive and dish or low-post feed and kick?’” Ryan said. “If you’re getting a lot of threes from just passing it around the perimeter, that’s not good, because you’re not making the defense work.”
Wisconsin is well known for making defenses defend late into the shot clock, but even that reputation isn’t entirely accurate. Two coaches at league rivals said more or less the same thing: The Badgers are the most bimodal team they face, with the vast majority of shots coming either in the first seven seconds of the shot clock -- yes, the first -- or the last seven. Part of Wisconsin's system is to fill lanes in transition and take open looks if they present themselves. Here’s an example from Sam Dekker from last season against Nebraska:
If the early shot is not there, the Swing kicks into effect, with the hope being that something layup-ish this will present itself as the clock winds down into single digits:
Last season the Badgers struggled with very poor outside shooting from the frontcourt but still won 23 games and earned a 5-seed in the NCAAs (where they lost to Ole Miss in the Round of 64). Ryan believes last year was a bit of a fluke in terms of the shooting, with point guard Josh Gasser missing the season due to injury and forward Jared Berggren, who made over 37 percent of his threes in 2012, connecting on just 25 percent last season.
This week’s trip to Canada should be an interesting early development opportunity for this generation of Badgers, who should be paced by the outstanding all-around talent of Dekker and sidekicks such as Ben Brust and (the team hopes) the healthy Gasser, but also will be incorporating six newcomers attempt as they start to rebuild a frontcourt hit hard by graduation. It’s a promising bunch, though, and despite Ryan’s halfhearted denials, one that should grow into an upper-division Big Ten team by the turn of the year. Ryan may even find himself with the group that can start to reverse the third impression outsiders have of his program: that they underachieve in the NCAA tournament (Ryan’s Badgers have beaten just one team seeded higher than they were, and they have lost six times to teams seeded 7th or lower in the past eight years).
Overall, though, Wisconsin has been a tremendous success under Ryan, and has achieved that success in an impressive variety of ways. Over the last 11 seasons (as far back as KenPom.com goes), the Badgers have finished in the nation’s top 30 in efficiency eight times each for offense and defense, with a No. 2 ranking on each side of the ball. With this new group, Ryan will continue to tweak things for his personnel while immersing them in the basics of the Swing. But, as flexible as he has been in his approach, a few things definitely won’t change.
“Play defense, take care of the ball and get good shots,” Ryan says. “Those three things are going to help any team.”