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Big Thought, Bo Ryan Edition: Three fascinating months in Madison

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Greenberg on Ryan retirement: 'Bo being Bo' (2:00)

ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg shares his thoughts on why Bo Ryan chose to retire from coaching during the middle of the season. (2:00)

Great shooters have this thing: They don't leave the gym on a miss. They never finish a practice or a workout or even a brief shootaround unless they've knocked down their last shot. Even if the legs are dead and nothing will fall, even if a getting that make means lurching up to the backboard and flipping it off the glass, the rule still holds. Great shooters always end on a make.

Bo Ryan's career at Wisconsin ended on that layup. The news came just before midnight. It came mere weeks into a season unlike almost any other in Ryan's tenure: inconsistent, uncertain, mostly mediocre. It came months after what would have been the mother of all makes, when Frank Kaminsky & Co. were minutes from capturing the 2015 national title.

It came mere days after Ryan saw shots that have always fallen -- Kohl Center games against Milwaukee and Marquette -- rim out. It came after a nondescript win over Texas A&M Corpus Christi, one in which his team committed 15 cardinal sins (known to the rest of the basketball world as "turnovers") and won 64-49 anyway.

The announcement felt like a great shooter's exhausted bargain: Any make will do.

Yet Ryan's rush to leave the gym is confusing only if viewed in a vacuum. In fact, it might well be the last great strategic decision of Ryan's career: A man that spent decades forcing opposing coaches into unfavorable tactical positions saved one last tweak for his own athletic director.

Simply put: Ryan wants to turn his program over to longtime assistant Greg Gard. He has expressed this desire privately, publicly and frequently. Alvarez, by all accounts, has remained unconvinced. In the AD's view, as Jeff Goodman writes today, "feels as though this program -- one that is coming off back-to-back Final Four appearances -- has elevated itself enough to land a high-profile coach. Someone like Virginia's Tony Bennett."

By leaving now, Ryan has made it impossible for Alvarez to do anything but give his interim head coach an extended audition, an audition Gard was unlikely to get under any other circumstances. Per ESPN Wisconsin's Zach Heilprin, Ryan was willing to step aside before this season if Gard would get the job. When Alvarez "scoffed at just handing the keys of a program coming off back-to-back Final Fours to a guy who had never been a head coach before," the man who tripled Wisconsin's all-time NCAA tournament appearances from seven to 21 (in 14 seasons!) had no choice but to wait until Alvarez would have no choice. For Gard to get a chance, this was the way to do it.

Now Gard has his chance. The real question is: How slim is it?

If Ryan's timing left in Alvarez in a tricky spot, it airdropped Gard on the face of El Capitan without rope or a carabiner. In three months, Gard has to overcome the doubts of his employer with a team that is, through 12 games, off to its worst start since 2001-02.

That was Ryan's first year, an an 11-5 Big Ten turnaround established the 14-for-14 NCAA tournament streak that is as impressive as any of the coach's other accomplishments. In almost every season that followed, Ryan's was one of the best 10 or 15 teams in the country: a deliberate, turnover-averse machine that could veer between elite offense and elite defense based on the season and its personnel. And even in the leaner years, Wisconsin-in-the-tournament was always the most reliable of year-end predictions.

This season has felt different. The Badgers are not only inexperienced, but disjointed. They struggle to get good shots on offense, let alone make them (their effective field goal percentage of 46.1 ranks 270th in Division I, down from 54.8 a season ago), as Hayes and Koenig have been swarmed by defenders unafraid to leave other Badgers unattended. On defense, this team isn't rebounding as well and is fouling more often, than it ever has. And while there have been bright spots -- Nov. 22's win over VCU, Dec. 2's win at Syracuse -- their overall results require another Big Ten turnaround.

This is the team Gard now inherits. Wisconsin's NCAA tournament streak is very much on the line. So is his own future. And the bar he has to clear is determined by Alvarez, a man unhappy to be forced into this exercise in the first place. Good luck.

Perhaps Gard's chances are slim. At least they exist. In the end, Ryan's abrupt departure wasn't merely a search for the easiest make. It was a strategic send-off. On Tuesday night, Ryan waved farewell, put Alvarez in a bind, gave his confidante a shot and ensured that for first time in 15 years we have no idea how a Wisconsin basketball season will end. Stay tuned.