A Talent For Winning

Questions keep being raised about Wisconsin's lack of NBA-grade talent. The Badgers keep answering those questions by winning.
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Bo Ryan has a reputation for being surly, argumentative, dismissive, and even mean in his dealings with the press. He certainly does not throw off the giddy volubility of the coaches who clearly relish their time in front of a microphone and a captive, note-taking audience. But if Bo Ryan is a jerk to the press, it's worth considering that this could simply be because Bo Ryan doesn't like stupid questions. And anyone who says there's no such thing as a stupid question hasn't been to enough post-game press conferences.

Take, for instance, the one that followed the game in which Wisconsin defeated Michigan 68-59 in Friday's Big Ten Quarterfinal. There, Ryan was asked a question he's surely heard variations on scores of times throughout his 13-year tenure at Wisconsin: the one about talent, and how Bo Ryan so constantly manages to win without it.

Maybe it doesn't sound stupid at first. Wisconsin has taken down 12 top-100 NBA Draft Prospects (per DraftExpress.com) on seven different teams this season:  Cody Zeller (4th, Indiana, twice), Victor Oladipo (7th, Indiana, twice), Trey Burke (17th, Michigan, twice), B.J. Young (19th, Arkansas), Glenn Robinson III (20th, Michigan, twice), Allen Crabe (36th, California), Deshaun Thomas (56th, Ohio State), Brandon Paul (59th, Illinois, twice), Trevor Mbakwe (73rd, Minnesota), Tim Hardaway Jr. (80th, Michigan, twice), Aaron Craft (86th, Ohio State) and Rodney Williams (91st, Minnesota).

Wisconsin did all this without a single top-100 prospect of its own. Only Sam Dekker (31st among freshmen) and Jared Berggren (34th among seniors) even have DraftExpress profiles. Traevon Jackson was a two-star recruit. Wisconsin was the first school to offer a Division 1 scholarship to Ryan Evans. This is the lack of talent to which the question refers.

If it's a stupid question, though, it's because this is nothing new for Wisconsin or Ryan. The Badgers have had two NBA draft choices since Devin Harris left: Alando Tucker and Jon Leuer, neither of which has made a real NBA impact. Greg Stiemsma has been the most successful Badger in the NBA since Harris, and he 1) wasn't drafted and 2) didn't make the league until he turned 26. The Badgers simply have not had NBA talent. This creates a sort of cognitive trap into which analysts and columnists across the country reliably wander when discussing Wisconsin basketball. The primary goal of a college basketball program is not to produce NBA players. It can be a secondary goal, perhaps, used as a recruiting tool; it can be seen as a byproduct of good recruiting or good coaching or both. But the primary goal, and the heart of Bo Ryan's job, is to win.

If he seems impatient with some questions, perhaps it's because he has continued to do his job; that is, to win with these teams, in a distinctive way. And yet, every year, Ryan has to answer questions from a media corps that treats it as a surprise or a fluke, and asks him how he manages to keep doing his job as well as he has always done it.

***

It's not complicated, really. Some skills win college basketball games, but are less valuable at the next level for a wide variety of reasons. These reasons include the slower pace, the shorter games, the different criteria for fouls (hand checking and the general physicality of the college game, specifically), the floor spacing resulting from different three point lines, the bigger and more athletic players at the NBA level, and so obviously on. When analysts and columnists try to answer the question of how Wisconsin wins without players in this narrow definition of talent, the answer is invariably "the system," with heaping side helpings of grittiness and ugliness and hunger.

I'm not suggesting the Badgers don't have these qualities. Wisconsin's swing offense has been brutally effective regardless of the personnel, but the system always changes to fit the players on hand; Traevon Jackson's swing is not Jordan Taylor's swing is not Devin Harris's. So, yes, Wisconsin plays ugly, with grit and hunger. So did this year's Penn State squad, and they finished with two Big Ten victories.

So maybe it's time to acknowledge that ur-Wisconsin players like Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz have talents. These aren't universally recognized talents, admittedly. They don't shoot well; they usually don't score. And they've spent four years playing prominent roles on teams that have combined to win 96 games, because they're talented.

After Purdue beat Wisconsin back on March 3rd, Boilermakers coach Matt Painter raved about the Badgers' senior trio, Evans, Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren. "[Evans] and Bruesewitz are very intriguing players because they have good size and they can guard quickness," Painter said. "Most guys with size can't guard quickness. They can guard really one through fours, and at times they can guard centers. They really give them an element that a lot of people don't have… They just do so many little things. When you look at Wisconsin's stats, it's not a normal type team, but when you look at those guys like Bruesewitz, Berggren and Evans, they always rebound, they always defend. They just help Wisconsin win games. So we have immense respect for them and how they play. Anytime we can get a guy like Evans or Bruesewitz or Berggren out of a game, it really helps us."

Even coaches who rely on them call what Painter described little things. We all separate these little things out from talent and ability. But this trio in particular among recent Badgers have shown gifts on the defensive end and off the glass, but the general narrative makes these things unimportant, or at least more little than they truly are.

But the revealing part of Painter's quote is the final sentence: "Anytime the opponent can get them out of a game, it helps them." It is impossible to reconcile the idea that these players lack talent with the idea that opposing coaches desperately want them off the floor. Wisconsin wins with these players because they have the talent to execute Bo Ryan's system on both ends. Ryan's system does an excellent job of leveraging the talent available to him, but the talent must be there to leverage in the first place. The key is finding the right kind of talent, and the right way to leverage it.

***

In a way, Wisconsin's story is the Moneyball of college basketball. Wisconsin hasn't been good enough for long enough to match up with the truly storied programs in terms of recruiting resource; the program arguably became relevant nationally in 2000, when Dick Bennett helmed the squad to the Final Four two seasons before Ryan took over. For much of his career, Bo Ryan simply wasn't going to convince the star guard, the muscular center or the hyper-athletic slasher to come play basketball at Wisconsin.

Instead, Ryan had to find talents hidden beneath the scoring-centric and NBA-centric scouting world that defined the national recruiting scene. He had to find big men with jump shots. He had to find small forwards who could defend the post. He had to find guards who could rebound. Even top-tier recruits like Joe Krabbenhoft, a five-star forward out of North Dakota, earned reputations as bangers and scrappers, reputations reserved for the untalented.

"I guess we don't get out there and flaunt our talent. I'm not out there going between the legs and trying to break someone's ankles every time I get a chance," Evans said. "I think I could beat anybody just about in the nation in one-on-one if that's what you want to say. But this isn't a one-on-one game, it's a team game. On the defensive end, that's a big part of it. We've got quick feet, we're jumping up, blocking shots, playing solid, sometimes basic basketball."

It's not that these talents aren't required nor present in the NBA; most if not all true NBA prospects possess them. But at the college level, the spread in terms of talent at these basic basketball abilities can be much wider. Not all players will be well-rounded. We hear about the offensive superstars who can drive and shoot, but we don't hear about the defensive juggernaut teams spend all game trying to figure out how to get off the court.

This is the problem with the talent discourse. Instead of trying to figure out how a winning team like Wisconsin is talented, we ask how they win without it. And so we're always surprised when a team like Wisconsin competes in a loaded Big Ten. Or we're surprised when Butler makes two Final Fours, because teams without top-tier talent aren't supposed to do that. But when we actually watch Wisconsin, or we watch other teams that win the games they aren't supposed to, we will still see players with the ability to change basketball games with their skills. Those skills are what we miss.

"You take advantage of what you can," Ryan said after his club knocked off consensus preseason No. 1 Indiana for the second time in 2013, a season in which most analysts pegged the Badgers to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten. "You try to take good opportunities every trip down. You try to limit another team's good opportunities, and it's that constant clash. And the game never changes. And my guys understand that." When it comes to winning college basketball games, Ryan's guys are pretty talented, too. The question is asked and answered.


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