By Derek Bell
As the Wisconsin Badger basketball team gained national recognition along their journey to last years Final Four, the phrase: “These aren’t your dad’s badgers…” became increasingly popular. This got me thinking, not about my dad’s badger farm, but rather what makes this team far superior to the teams I grew up watching.
Ever since Mike Kelly signed my Nikes at “Badger” camp in 2001, collegiate basketball has been the season I anticipate most. Badger fans have had it good over the last decade, but the season usually goes something like this…a preseason top 25 ranking, substantial non-conference home win over Duke, Florida, or the like, followed shortly by a trademark road loss to a team they should beat by 20, win 80% of Big Ten conference match-ups, reach the semi-finals in the Big Ten Championship, earn a 6-seed in the “dance,” and ultimately lose in the second round while launching 3-pointers like the NCAA was thinking about removing the line. Big picture, the teams are good, but as a fan, it leaves much to be desired.
Bo Ryan took the helm as head coach in 2001, in that time three players, Badgers, have been drafted into the Association (Coach K, at Duke, has turned out twenty-two). So how is it that the Badgers are able to achieve so much with less talent than perennial powerhouses like Duke? It can all be summed up with four simple Badger constants:
1. Free throw margin. This seems obvious; they’re called free throws for a reason. Last year the badgers made 642 throws (864 attempts) and their opponents only attempted 579 (making 418 in the process). After consulting my abacus, that’s 224 points in 38 games, giving the badgers 5.89 “free” points per game. In a conference where points are often few and far between, nearly 6 points per game is substantial.
2. Cherish the ball. If there is one thing Coach Ryan does not tolerate, it is turnovers. Last season they had the sixth best assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.52. There is no “turnover-special-treatment,” meaning that even if your last name is Dekker and you throw the ball away, Ryan has his hand on the shoulder of your replacement before the ball hits the second row. It goes beyond making “heady” decisions, fundamentals are preached and executed nearly to perfections. The next time you tune in for a game, watch as the ball is swung from side to side. Every pass (defended or not) is caught on the offensive players outside hip. This subtle, elementary difference may seem tedious and undervalued, but at the end of the day, those breakaway dunks they didn’t give up are the difference between winning or losing.
3. Come for four, stay for four. This is a thing, both good and bad. Meaning Wisconsin doesn’t attract top-prospects who are NBA ready, but rather players maximize their potential by learning and buying into the “system.” Ryan has only started four freshmen during his tenure (Devin Harris, Alando Tucker, Josh Gasser, and Sam Dekker), which is why they consistently lead the NCAA in highest free throw margin and assist-to-turnover ratio.
4. Swing it. Lastly the Badgers have something other teams do not: big men who can shoot and guards who can post. Now this is a double edge sword if your seven-footer falls in love with shooting from Middleton, but more often than not it’s quite effective. As the big men vacate the block, Wisconsin’s guards enter the post and showcase their sneaky ability to score on their less experienced post defenders.
These four things that have produced over a decade of perfectly mediocre results, making it harder to get excited as the final horn sounds and 50 points wins the game.
So what makes this year’s team so special? With the four previous constants alive and well, this season’s team has an added dimension.
Scoring Depth. Historically, to say the Badgers are known for their scoring would be like saying their football team is known for their high-powered passing game…neither are accurate. In previous years as the shot clock approaches zero and a shot hadn’t been attempted, their one legitimate scoring threat would isolate and eventually end up with a contested 25-footer.
This team doesn’t have one legitimate scoring threat…they have six. So what will they do at the end of the shot clock/game? Run a two-man game with two-preseason, Wooden Award Watch List Nominees in Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky? Let Traevon Jackson penetrate and kick to the ageless wonder Josh Gasser who shot over 43% from beyond the arc last year? Post up the crafty and reliable Nigel Hayes who looks like he should be starting at tight end this Saturday? Or let sophomore standout and soon to be starter Bronson Koenig channel his inner Pistol Pete by giving his big men an all expenses paid trip to Sportscenter’s Top Plays? Just a couple viable options that give the Badgers a realistic chance to cut down the nets come March.
Moral of the story: these are the most talented Badgers this millennium. Although they don’t have nine McDonalds All Americans like Kentucky, this team is built to live up to expectations and go deep in the tournament.
My dad’s description of his Badger’s:
“Pass – Pass – Pass – fake a shot – and pass once more as the shot clock expires.” - PB
Lets hope they’re right when they say, “These aren’t my dad’s Badgers…”