CHICAGO -- Bo Ryan’s roster -- a Wisconsin squad that defeated Michigan 68-59 in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center on Friday -- lacks the star power some of its league and national peers employ.
His Badgers aren’t anchored by NBA prospects and five-star recruits. Their layup lines rarely feature the acrobatic dunks that draw gasps from the crowd.
One of his best players, Ryan Evans, sports a high-top fade and takes jump shots at the free throw line because he’s been so shaky from the charity stripe this season. Then there’s the guy with the impossible name and the funny carrot-top haircut (Mike Bruesewitz).
Per RecruitingNation, point guard Traevon Jackson was a two-star recruit from Westerville, Ohio, when Ryan signed him. Jared Berggren is … big. Wisconsin’s former starting point guard, Josh Gasser, tore an anterior cruciate ligament before the season.
And that didn’t stop Ryan from winning 20 games for the 10th time at Wisconsin and earning Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.
“When the guys come in, I take those little stars you lick, and I take them and I put four or five stars on each locker. ‘Hey, you're a five-star guy. You're a four-star guy,’” Ryan joked. “You know, it's what that star shines like when you're finished with your career. So I'm always looking for guys who are willing to come in, work hard, have talent, and it's about us, not individuals. But individuals can thrive. If you're good, you can get to do a lot of things. So I don't want to sell my players short. I've got good players who are much better as a result of playing together.”
The critics assess the Badgers within a college basketball culture that tends to value "SportsCenter" highlights over efficiency ratings. But they never worry Ryan.
He continues to defy every misperception, stereotype and false assumption about his program. That’s because Ryan focuses on winning. And his players follow his example.
“We’re not really concerned about what other people think. Clearly,” Bruesewitz said. “If I did, I wouldn’t have this ridiculous haircut. And I don’t think he would recruit some of the guys. We’ve got some ugly dudes on this team, so if he cared what other people thought I don’t think he’d recruit some of us.”
Ryan and the Badgers proved -- again -- that they’re among the country’s top programs when they secured their second victory over the Wolverines in 2012-13.
They shot 17 percent from the field in the first half. Then the offense unclogged its drain and flowed. Wisconsin went 17-for-28 and scored 51 points after halftime.
Evans (12 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and a steal) attacked the rim. Wisconsin’s shooters, including Bruesewitz (2-for-4 from the 3-point line, 8 points, 8 rebounds and 2 steals), found their range. Jackson (16 points and a steal) helped the Badgers frustrate Trey Burke (8-for-22, 19 points), a top candidate for national player of the year.
After the Badgers secured a 56-45 lead on a Ben Brust 3-pointer with 6:03 to play, Michigan scored nine unanswered points to cut Wisconsin’s lead to two on Burke’s layup with 3:37 to go.
But the Badgers never deviated from their system. They maintained their gritty man-to-man defense. They remained aggressive on offense.
And they won after the Wolverines finished 2-for-7 from the field after that Burke layup.
Michigan has a minimum of three NBA prospects. Burke could be a lottery pick this summer. Glenn Robinson III was a five-star forward in the 2012 recruiting class, per ESPN.com. Tim Hardaway Jr., son of a former NBA All-Star, could be a first-round pick, too. But Wisconsin’s cohesiveness often trumps talent gaps in matchups.
“The old cliché: ‘Defense wins championships,’” Evans said. “We understand that here, and anything we can do to slow those guys down and get our shots is what's going to move us forward.”
Don’t pity Wisconsin.
Its 2012-13 campaign has proved that the Badgers’ skill, athleticism and potential are largely underrated. Evans is a physical forward with a solid post game. Bruesewitz can beat teams inside or outside. Berggren has a better block percentage (7.02) than Trevor Mbakwe, Cody Zeller and Adreian Payne, according to Ken Pomeroy. Jackson is fearless, so he’s never afraid of big shots.
“I think we have as much talent as anybody,” Evans said. “I can go between the legs. Sam [Dekker] can go between the legs.”
In the postgame news conference, Ryan seemed more interested in the soda in his left hand than explaining his legacy of success.
He has utilized the same formula and offered the same responses to the same questions.
He rarely signs five-star recruits. He believes in molding players over time. They always defend or they don’t play.
His swing offense is based on smart shots, not individual maneuvering.
With that philosophy, Ryan has never finished below fourth in the Big Ten. He has never missed the NCAA tournament since his tenure began with the 2001-02 season. He has won at least 19 games each season, too.
Albeit without the nation’s sexiest style.
“It doesn’t really matter what they say,” Jackson said. “As long as we stay together, it’s OK.”
In Saturday's semifinals, the Badgers will face another team that NBA front offices love. The Hoosiers feature Zeller and Victor Oladipo, who could join Burke in the lottery in June.
If “talent” is the best barometer, then Indiana will win.
But the Badgers have won 11 in a row against the Hoosiers. So perhaps it’s not.
“We got to get these guys down and get them some rest for tomorrow,” Ryan said.
Indiana should probably get to bed early, too.