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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Bo Ryan spent 17 years piling up championships and accolades at Wisconsin-Platteville and UW-Milwaukee, and his five-year stint in Madison hasn't deviated much from that pattern. Ryan is the winningest active Division I coach with at least 20 years of experience, with a .765 winning percentage. His career Big Ten record of 55-25 is the third-best in conference history after at least 50 games. He's the only coach in Big Ten history to win at least 11 conference games in his first four seasons, and is a two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year.
But last year, Ryan and the Badgers experienced uncharted territory -- namely, a winless postseason. After winning seven NCAA Tournament games in his first four years, the Badgers were one and done in the Big Dance, getting blown out by ninth-seeded Arizona in a first-round game in Philadelphia.
In fact, Wisconsin ended the year on a four-game losing skid. With a shot at winning at least a share of the conference title, the Badgers lost their final two games, at Michigan State and Iowa, and then were knocked out of the Big Ten Tournament in the first round with a five-point loss to fifth-ranked Indiana.
But don't expect Ryan to look too hard at those losses in hopes of correcting any flaws that might reappear down the stretch this season. He said the team's late-season troubles were easily diagnosed -- it came down to who the Badgers were playing, and where they were playing them.
"Then we go to Indianapolis and play Indiana, which is hardly a neutral-court situation, and we don't get it done there. Then we played Arizona when they had Hassan Adams back from his DUI, and when they're at full-strength, Arizona is just about as good as anybody in the country. So we've got nothing to be ashamed of with our guys. We were just beaten by four tough teams in tough environments."
Truth be told, the Badgers might have even overachieved a bit last year in getting to 19 wins and reaching their school-record eighth straight NCAA Tournament, making them one of only nine schools with a streak that long. They had to replace four starters off their back-to-back 25-win teams, and had to adjust on the fly at midseason when two freshmen who had been making contributions were ruled academically ineligible for the second semester.
This time around, they've got four starters back, plus 90.0 percent of their points, 93.1 percent of rebounds and 87.1 percent of minutes, tops in the Big Ten in all three categories. In fact, of all the teams in last year's NCAA Tournament, only Wisconsin and defending champion Florida return at least 90 percent of their scoring and rebounding.
"We were one of the youngest teams in the nation last year, so hopefully all that experience will help them this season," Ryan said. "You hope they got better in the off-season and they're ready to go in the fall. Like I've always said about experience: getting it is one thing, using it is another thing. As a coach, I've never tried to out-technique somebody. I know some guys like to say they've got 60 different plays -- shoot, I've known football teams that have won national championships with five plays. What you need to do is do what you do well. The important thing is through repetitions, execute what you've started and get better and better every year."
The youthful Badgers started out on a hot streak last year, winning 10 of their first 11 games, with the only slip coming in a three-point loss at Wake Forest in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Nov. 29. They dropped their final pre-Big Ten game, a nine-point defeat at No. 18 Pitt, but rebounded to win their first four conference games before losing by 10 at No. 19 Ohio State.
Then came the shocker. Three days later, the Badgers' 27-game non-conference homecourt winning streak was snapped by independent North Dakota State, which had been playing Division I ball for just three years. But that was pretty easily explained by the stat sheet, which showed Wisconsin shooting a season-low 16-for-72 from the floor (.222) and giving up a season-high 46 rebounds.
They Badgers shook off that setback with a win over Penn State, but then lost three straight conference games, including road defeats against Michigan and Purdue. The Badgers won three of their next four, including a five-point victory over Ohio State at Kohl Center behind Alando Tucker's 27 points and 16 rebounds, but that was their last victory of the year, setting the stage for their disappointing postseason.
Wisconsin has long been known for its stifling defense, but last season the Badgers scored 71.1 points per game, their highest mark in 11 years. Ryan said it wasn't a matter of changing the team's style, but rather taking advantage of opportunities.
"Sometimes it's just about the number of possessions you have, or whether you're playing with the lead or playing from behind," he said. "We've never held the ball. We've always tried to get the easiest basket you can get, and if it comes in transition, we'll go get it. But sometimes the way the tempo dictates the game, your number of possessions is higher. With me, it's always about the number of points per possession. We scored one point per possession last year pretty steady, and we were happy with that."
Another hallmark of Ryan's teams is continuity in the starting lineup, and last year was no exception to that trend. The Badgers started the same five players in 29-of-31 games, although sixth man Michael Flowers finished third on the team in minutes played, which shows that Ryan doesn't ignore match-ups in favor of that continuity. He just likes to dictate the start of the game based on his team, not his opponents.
"We're going to put out who we put out, and the other people can do what they want," Ryan said. "I'm not going to adjust to somebody else to start a game. What I like to do is get a pattern going, and then your minutes can change. Sometimes a starter gets less than a guy who comes off the bench for me. But we don't talk about match-ups much with other people because they've got to match up with us, too."
Ryan hoped to get his team more bonding time and experience on the court by taking it on a 10-day tour of Italy in August. The Badgers went 5-0 against professional teams that featured a number of ex-college players from the U.S., providing quality competition not often found on foreign tours.