Up until Saturday, plenty of college basketball fans appreciated Bo Ryan’s coaching ability in a patronizing, half-insulting kind of way. Yes, he’s a fantastic Big Ten coach, that much is beyond dispute.
This statistically-bland fact fed all sorts of terrible sports narratives. Bo Ryan can’t get to the Final Four because he doesn’t recruit enough talent. Bo Ryan can’t get to the Final Four because his slow-down style of basketball is a parlor trick exposed by elite teams. Bo Ryan can’t get to the Final Four because referees outside the Big Ten don’t fall for his sideline pleas and thus freely whistle the Badgers for physical defense.
None of these arguments held merit. For example, while the 2012 Syracuse Orange (who the Badgers lost to, by 1, in the Sweet 16) were a very good team, had Wisconsin shot its normal free-throw percentage that game (74 percent, instead of the 7-12 performance that occurred), it wouldn’t have been the Badgers’ best win on the season. Just a few weeks prior, Wisconsin beat Ohio State on the road (the Buckeyes went to the Final Four that season, a run that included beating Syracuse), and then a 27-win Indiana team in Indianapolis. If parlor tricks are exposed by Syracuse in Boston, surely they don’t hold up against a great Ohio State team in Columbus, either.
The argument that Ryan’s Badgers play a Big Ten-specific style of play also doesn’t get very far. In 2009, Wisconsin beat Duke in the non-conference; that same season the Blue Devils won the National Championship. In 2006, Wisconsin destroyed a Pitt team that ultimately won 29 games. The next year they beat a Texas team—in Austin, no less—that won 31 games before losing in the Elite 8 to Derrick Rose’s Memphis Tigers. This season, the Badgers have taken down three number-1 seeds: Florida, Virginia, and now Arizona (Wichita State rudely exited the Dance before the Badgers could take a shot at the sweep). The truth of the matter is that Wisconsin routinely beats elite teams, year-in, year-out, and plenty of them hail from outside the Big Ten.
These narratives always irked me not only because they were unthinking shots at a great coach, but also because the same finger pointed toward the scoreboard was always the evidence supporting them. Nevermind that Bo Ryan was actually a slight overachiever in the NCAA Tournament, he hasn’t been to the hallowed grounds of a Final Four.
I’ll fess up for not believing in Wisconsin entering Saturday’s game. Not for any #narrative reasons, but because the Badgers were going up against an elite defense that also had the ability to punish an uncharacteristically subpar (by Ryan’s standards, anyway) Wisconsin rebounding team. And the Wildcats did, in fact, hurt the Badgers on the glass, securing 34 percent of their misses. But that merely meant they played Wisconsin to a draw on that front, as the offensive boards were plentiful on both sides.
But I didn’t count on Frank Kaminsky being this good. And that’s a genuine mea culpa, because we were probably the only guys on the planet that thought Kaminsky was better than Nik Stauskas this season. And all he did was go into the teeth of the best interior defense in the country, and score 28 points.
Who knew—it took a skinny kid from Lisle, Illinois to lift the monkey off Bo Ryan’s back.