Bo Ryan's Badgers are off to a blistering pace and more hoop thoughts

Monday November 25th, 2013

Bo Ryan hasn't led such a potent offense since he was coaching at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With a little less than three minutes remaining in Wisconsin's home game against North Dakota last Tuesday, coach Bo Ryan's assistants informed him that 7-foot junior forward Frank Kaminsky was one point shy of breaking the school's single-game scoring record. Normally, an individual record is the last thing Ryan wants to think about in the final minutes of a game, but this time he figured, What the heck. "Get back in there, Frank," he said, sending Kaminsky to the scorer's table. "You've got one more shot."

At that moment, Kaminsky may have been the only member of the team who was unaware he stood on the precipice of history. Soon after he got back in the game, Kaminsky dropped in a layup for his 42nd and 43rd points. That broke the mark that had long been co-owned by Michael Finley and Ken Barnes. Wisconsin went on to win, 103-85.

It is hard to decide which is the most remarkable part of this story. Is it that an old-school coach would alter his late-game substitutions so one of his players could break a scoring record, or that the player came into the game with a 3.2 career average? Or that it only took Kaminsky 28 minutes to do it, thanks to his 6-for-6 three-point shooting barrage? Or that Wisconsin, traditionally one of the principal plodders in college basketball, would eclipse the 100-point mark for the first time in Ryan's 13 years there?

No, the most remarkable part is just how unremarkable it was. Welcome to the New Normal in Wisconsin basketball.

Ever since Ryan alighted in Madison, the act of playing his Badgers has frequently been likened to sitting in a dentist's chair. Now it feels like a ride on Space Mountain.

Heading into their 76-67 win over Oral Roberts last Saturday, the Badgers were playing at the fastest pace (67.8 possessions per game, up from 62.3 last season) and producing the greatest offensive efficiency (1.22 points per possession, up from 1.04) of the Ryan era. Their 73 possessions against North Dakota were the most at the school since 2007. They led the Big Ten in both field goal percentage (49.8) and three-point percentage (48.5), and they had already topped the 80-point mark three times. Ryan has never had a team at Wisconsin reach 80 more than five times in a single season. This team is averaging 80 points per game.

So what in the world has gotten into this man? To hear Ryan tell it, he's just coaching the way he has always coached, all evidence to the contrary. "I've always been an opportunistic guy. You take advantage of what you have and you try to minimize your weaknesses," he told me over the phone last week. "I'm telling my guys the same thing I always have, which is to look for the best scoring opportunity we can get. So I wouldn't read more into it, or less. Just take it at face value."

It may be hard to accept Ryan's explanation at face value, but there is much truth to what he is saying. The main reason the Badgers' style is so different is because their personnel is so different. Gone are the wide-shouldered, lumberjack forwards of the past like Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz, Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil, Tim Jarmusz, Marcus Landry and Joe Krabbenhoft. This year, the Badgers are anchored up front by two slender forwards -- Kaminsky, who weighs just 230 pounds, and 6-7 sophomore Sam Dekker -- who are more comfortable behind the three-point line than setting up on the block.

That pair is complemented by a three-guard perimeter in which 6-4 junior Josh Gasser plays the traditional small forward spot in Ryan's swing offense. Traevon Jackson, son of former Ohio State All-America Jimmy Jackson, is a push-it-up point guard who powers the fast break. "Tray has really emerged as a leader. He's much more aggressive about pushing the ball than he was last year," Kaminsky said. "It's nice to get up and down a little more than we have in the past."

With its spread-you-out, drive-and-kick, four-around-one alignment, Wisconsin is also well positioned to take advantage of the new emphasis that officials are placing on limiting physical contact. As a member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches' board of directors, Ryan argued in favor of many of those changes, but he has adjusted to all of them. "We've got to coach to the rules like everybody else," he said.

In many ways, this faster, gunslinging style is a return to the way Ryan's teams played before he came to Madison. Six of his last seven teams at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville averaged more than 73 points per game. Three averaged more than 82. Ryan even recalls that during one game, his team scored 92 points, in the first half. "We were playing one of those teams that wanted to get up a shot every seven seconds," he said with a chuckle. "So I'm like, 'Okay. If that's what you want to do.'"

Ryan, however, warns us not to get too excited. Once conference play begins in January, his dentist's drill could start whirring again. "I think most teams in the Big Ten average more in the nonconference season than they do in the conference season," he said. "Every possession is a battle." That is doubly true in the postseason where, Ryan said, "you better be good in the halfcourt."

Still, during the last decade, nobody in college basketball has been better at forcing opponents to play the game his way. I see no reason why Ryan can't keep doing that -- only this time, by speeding things up. He is, after all, an opportunistic guy. Sometimes you just gotta say, what the heck.

More Hoop Thoughts

• After getting ejected early in the second half of Colorado State's loss at UTEP last week, Larry Eustachy complained that the rule changes were made because "it's all about money." (Imagine!) That night, he had a point as the two teams combined for 75 fouls and 54 free throws. However, during the Rams' win over Northern Colorado a few days later, Eustachy's team only committed 12 fouls. You see? Once coaches and players see that the referees will not adjust to them, they will adjust to the refs. That's what's supposed to happen.

• Best near-miss of last week: UAB's double-OT loss to New Mexico. The Lobos needed two buzzer-beating threes to extend the game, and the Blazers responded by whopping Nebraska by 13 the next day. With Memphis out of Conference USA, there is no clear favorite in the league. It looks like UAB and Charlotte could give us quite a tussle.

• When you watch 6-8 sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell going to work for Louisville, keep in mind that he was originally signed to go to Virginia Tech, but he backed out when the school fired Seth Greenberg. Meanwhile, Greenberg's former school has already lost three times this season, including the opener at home to USC Upstate. Just making sure you knew.

• Man that was some whoopin' Memphis took in Stillwater. You just don't recover mentally from something like that so easily.

• Speaking of which, it looks like Marcus Smart is going to be the first repeat designee of my official college hoops man-crush. Hope he can handle that kind of pressure.

• Through its first five games, Washington has allowed its opponents to score 78, 86, 80, 102 and 89 points. That's not how you get Capone.

• I see you, Eric Mika! (But don't be afraid to score over that right shoulder once in a while.)

• Shabazz Napier was terrific in UConn's win over Indiana, but even more important for the Huskies' long-term prospects was the impact that 6-10 senior Tyler Olander had while getting his most extensive playing time of the season. Olander, who had four points, four rebounds and two steals in 24 minutes, had a rough offseason, which included rehabbing from a broken foot and a suspension after he was arrested twice on misdemeanor charges. Given UConn's dearth of quality big men, it is imperative that Olander continue to plug up the middle.

• It's been a long time since I've seen an early-season result more surprising than North Carolina 93, Louisville 84. Could've knocked me over with a feather.

• Iowa State forward Melvin Ejim made a bad mistake when he flipped off the BYU crowd, but I give him credit for immediately apologizing on Twitter. Besides being a terrific player, Ejim is a great student who last season was named the Big 12's scholar-athlete award, an honor which covers all sports. He's smart enough to recognize his mistake, and I believe he's smart enough not to make it again.

• I can't say enough about how much Sean Kilpatrick has matured. Even though Cincinnati lost its point guard, Cashmere Wright, Kilpatrick has raised his field goal percentage from 39.8 to 54.3. That is purely a result of better shot selection.

• It's gonna be a looooong season at Georgia.

• I gotta tell ya, the whole which-is-the-best-conference debate is pretty tiresome. I mean, I'll play along, but I really don't care.

• Love the story about Kansas freshman center Joel Embiid's dad watching him play a basketball game for the first time last week in Allen Fieldhouse. In fact, it was the first basketball game that Thomas Embiid had ever seen. The family is from Cameroon, where Thomas is a military colonel. Joel grew up playing volleyball and was first exposed to hoops at a camp run by former UCLA forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who plays for the Kings in the NBA and is from the same town. In a few months, Joel will be a top-five NBA draft pick. Is this a great country or what?

• Georgetown and Maryland: Can y'all play already? Seriously. Enough!

• A big reason UNLV's guard play has been poor this season is because the Rebels suffered a tough blow when Katin Reinhardt transferred to USC. I was at a USC practice a couple of weeks ago, and Reinhardt was the best player on the floor that day.

• I know we are in the Age of the Ball Screen, but it seems to me there's a real downside to setting so many of them. Because every time you do, you bring a second defender to the ball. Sometimes it's better just to give the dribbler more space.

• The most unenforced rule in the book right now has to be the coaches' box, right? Does it even exist anymore?

• Pitt does not play a team that is currently ranked in the top 25 until Jan. 18 at Syracuse. That's kinda weird.

• Duke really needs to get Rasheed Sulaimon going if it's going to win the preseason NIT this week. During his last four games, the 6-4 sophomore has shot 4-for-18 from the floor and scored a total of 15 points.

• I watch all these holiday tournaments, I see all these coaches wearing golf shirts and slacks, and I ask myself why they can't just dress like that all the time. Maybe it's just me.

• Of all the really bad ideas thrown around to "improve" college hoops, one of the worst is the suggestion that we go to six personal fouls. I mean, is that really what we need at the moment? More fouls?

• Can't say I've seen any improvement from Kentucky sophomore forward Alex Poythress. His shooting percentages are way down from last year, and his playing time is dwindling.

• Hey all you numbers nerds: You discovered the #KPI website yet? Go visit and tell me what you think.

• Arizona State has really found a gem in 6-4 senior guard Jermaine Marshall, a graduate transfer from Penn State who is averaging 16 points per game on 44 percent three-point shooting. Makes you wonder how good Penn State might have been last year if Tim Frazier didn't get hurt.

• The number one mistake I hear from broadcasters is when they raise the subject of intent after a potential flagrant foul is committed. The word intent does not appear anywhere in those rules. The only question is whether the elbow thrown was excessive and/or severe. Got it, guys?

• I am really not feeling Baylor right now. Cory Jefferson is a beast, but Isaiah Austin is still soft as pudding, and those guards aren't scaring anyone.

Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week

Marquette at Arizona State, Monday, 9 p.m.

Actually, I'm psyched to see any game that mighty mite Jahii Carson is playing in. Marquette's guards, meanwhile, have really struggled.

Arizona State 65, Marquette 55

Minnesota vs. Syracuse in Maui, Monday, 5:30 p.m.

We've seen Boeheim go up against Rick Pitino plenty of times, so it's only fair that Pitino's son, Richard, gets his chance. The Gophers might have the best player on the floor in 6-2 junior guard Andre Hollins, but that won't be enough.

Syracuse 76, Minnesota 70

Saint Louis vs. Wisconsin in Cancun, Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.

The Billikens have not gotten much attention despite returning four starters from the team that won the Atlantic 10. Even so, I'm not sure they have enough firepower to hang with the Fighting Kaminskys.

Wisconsin 77, Saint Louis 71

Illinois at UNLV, Tuesday, 10:45 p.m.

I know it's way too early to start using the B-word, but let's just say this is one of those games that could make an impression on a certain selection committee a few months hence. The Rebels have had a rough start, and if they can't bounce back here, their season could quickly become a lost cause.

UNLV 74, Illinois 70

Arizona vs. Duke in New York City, Friday, 9:30 p.m.

I'll take a flyer and guess that these teams will squeeze by Drexel and Alabama, respectively, in the preseason NIT semis on Wednesday. I was willing to give the Blue Devils the benefit of the doubt after their close shave against East Carolina, but it's obvious that their defensive problems are very real. I expect Nick Johnson to take advantage.

Arizona 79, Duke 73

This Week's AP Ballot

*(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Michigan State (1)
2. Kentucky (2)
3. Kansas (3)
4. Arizona (6)
5. Syracuse (7)
6. Oklahoma State (9)
7. Duke (5)
8. Ohio State (8)
9. Louisville (4)
10. Wichita State (12)
11. Florida (13)
12. Creighton (17)
13. North Carolina (NR)
14. Iowa (18)
15. Gonzaga (19)
16. Wisconsin (20)
17. UConn (21)
18. Iowa State (24)
19. Oregon (23)
20. UMass (NR)
21. Memphis (11)
22. Marquette (25)
23. New Mexico (22)
24. Baylor (15)
25. Colorado (NR)

DROPPED OUT: VCU (10), Michigan (14), Harvard (16)

This was a wacky week in college basketball. The near-upsets were as significant as the actual upsets. I'm trying not to get too locked into convention this early in the year, so there were lots of changes to make by Sunday night.

Start with the North Carolina Tar Heels, who must feel like a beat-up pinball. After they lost at home to Belmont last week, I dropped them from No. 10 all the way off my ballot. Obviously, that must have inspired them, because they pulled off the upset of the week by knocking off Louisville at Mohegan Sun on Sunday. I couldn't quite rank the Heels ahead of Louisville because a) they still lost at home to Belmont and b) I think Louisville is the better team. But they deserve respect for rebounding in such grand fashion.

I usually don't like to drop teams following close wins -- they are wins, after all -- but Duke definitely needed to come down a couple of pegs after its great escape in Cameron Sunday night against Vermont. I might have given the Blue Devils a mulligan, except they already used it when they squeaked by East Carolina at home as well.

I must say I was very disappointed with VCU's play at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, where the Rams lost to Florida State and Georgetown. I still have high hopes for them, but they really need to improve their perimeter defense. Harvard opened up a dougle-digit lead at Colorado on Sunday but couldn't pull off the win. I still think Harvard is legit, which is why I rewarded Colorado by inserted the Buffaloes at No. 25.

I was probably a little too tough on Michigan, given that Mitch McGary is still working his way into game shape and Glenn Robinson III was limited to nine minutes versus Charlotte because of back problems. But keep in mind that Michigan also came real close to losing to Florida State. In the long term, I still think this could be a very good team, but right now the Wolverines don't deserve to be ranked.

My decisions at the bottom of the ballot were tougher than usual. If Indiana had pulled off the win over UConn, I would have ranked the Hoosiers. Arizona State really impressed me with that road win at UNLV last week, but the Rebels aren't exactly lighting the world on fire. Boise State, Florida State and Georgetown are also part of that tie for 26th. The Hoyas are heading into the soft part of their schedule before they play at Kansas on Dec. 21.

I also thought about ranking UCLA, but the Bruins have had five easy home wins against mediocre opponents. When they beat somebody decent, I'll take a closer look. Cincinnati also hasn't played a tough slate thus far, but I'm watching them. We'll know more about the Bearcats when they hit the road to play New Mexico and Xavier in December.

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