Nothing close to flashy, and far from pretty.
But fundamentally sound? Absolutely.
This is the brand of basketball that Wisconsin took pride in during Bo Ryan’s 16 full seasons as head coach of the Badgers.
The Chester, Pennsylvania native cringed at the thought of one of his players attempting a one-handed dunk in transition. Ryan always preferred nice, easy layups. Flamboyance and glamour weren’t part of the coach’s philosophy.
Ryan rarely chased after any extravagant recruits. He didn’t need them. Ryan was more than willing to teach his style of play to anyone who had the patience.
It didn’t matter if the player was a two-star recruit, such as Traevon Jackson, or even if the player was barely given a glance from the scouts, like Zak Showalter.
Regardless, when Ryan’s players committed to his stern philosophy, they often graduated with a more disciplined, patient game than most players in the country.
The four-time Big Ten Coach of the Year’s points of emphasis were defense, free-throws, and not turning the ball over. In other words, he stressed fundamentally sound basketball.
Though Wisconsin’s game plan was far from exciting, Badger fans and Athletic Director Barry Alvarez had to be content.
In Ryan’s time with Wisconsin, the Badgers made two Final Four appearances and never missed the NCAA tournament. The swing-offense enthusiast’s overall record at Wisconsin was 364-130.
Ryan contemplated retirement before the 2015-’16 season began. He ultimately decided to return for a final season in Madison before doing so. However, Following a win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Ryan changed his mind and suddenly announced his immediate retirement.
Ryan’s long time assistant, Greg Gard, took over head coaching duties for Wisconsin approximately halfway through last season. This made the rest of the season an audition for Gard, the seven-year assistant coach for Wisconsin.
In the final 20 games of the 2015-’16 season, Gard went 13-7 and picked up key victories over second-ranked Maryland, fourth-ranked Michigan State, eighth-ranked Iowa, and No. 19 Indiana.
Before the NCAA tournament began and before Gard led the Badgers to the sweet 16, his tag of interim head coach was lifted. Gard was named the official head coach. He passed his audition.
The thought process when deciding to stick with Gard rather than look at a plethora of options was to continue the legacy of Ryan-style basketball. It hadn’t failed yet, so why move on to something else?
Though Gard’s Badgers have been ranked as high as seven in 2016-’17 and are tied for first in the Big Ten, implementing the key facets of Ryan-basketball has not been easy.
Here is some evaluation on how Gard has done thus far.
1. Free Throws.
In Ryan’s final seven seasons with Wisconsin, excluding the 12 games he coached to begin the 2015-’16 season, the Badgers collectively shot 73.7 percent from the free-throw line. To include some perspective, that mark would be tied for 60th best in the country this year.
Through 26 games this season, Gard’s Badgers have only converted 66.6 percent of their free-throws. At this rate, Wisconsin is on pace to finish the 2016-’17 season with its second-worst free-throw percentage of the 21st century.
Ryan’s Badgers were also particularly savvy in terms of handling the ball. If anything, savvy is an understatement. Wisconsin was flat-out amazing when it came to not turning the ball over.
In each of Ryan’s final seven seasons, Wisconsin was a top five team in terms of turning the ball over, or lack thereof. This included back-to-back seasons, 2009-’10 and 2010-’11, in which Wisconsin averaged the least turnovers per game in all of Division I.
The Badgers’ average amount of turnovers per game in Ryan’s final seven seasons was 8.5. Michigan leads the NCAA this season in least turnovers per game with 9.4.
While the current Wisconsin squad has been solid at limiting turnovers, Ryan left higher expectations. The Badgers are currently ranked 33rd in the country in turnovers per game, averaging 11.4. Wisconsin hasn’t averaged over 10 turnovers per game since the 2007-’08 season.
Gard hasn’t failed to incorporate all components of Ryan’s style of play though. He has done an exceptional job at carrying on something Wisconsin has taken enormous pride in since the early 2000s: defense.
The Badgers have allowed their opponents to score an average of only 60.4 points per game so far this season. Only Virginia’s 55.5, St. Mary’s 56.6, and SMU’s 58.6 opposing point totals rank above Wisconsin.
Ryan’s teams did in fact only allow 57.9 points per game in his final seven seasons. However, those teams only cracked the top four in opposing point totals twice.
It’s evident that Gard is still searching for ways to keep Ryan’s style of basketball intact at Wisconsin. The Badgers’ free-throw struggles and increase in turnovers raise major red flags. Be that as it may, the team Gard has put on the floor from a defensive standpoint indicates he may be on the right track. Only time will tell.