Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Season Obituaries: Wisconsin

Let's say I'm Satan (could be true). Let's say that, in a free moment between debauchery and rigged fiddle contests, I offer you a deal: your favorite basketball team could make the NCAA tournament every year, and you'll even make the Sweet 16 half the time, but you'll never, ever make a Final Four. Do you take the deal?

If you are an Alabama State fan, the answer is "do you want my soul, because that will still be fine." Even if you're the fan of a long-suffering major conference team--Northwestern, say, or maybe Penn State--the answer would probably be yes. Michigan State fans would understandably be far less sanguine about the deal.

Wisconsin won the NCAA tournament in 1940, then made one more tournament in the next 52 years (and none from 1947-93, or to put it another way, none from mid-Truman to early Clinton). Even after ending the long drought, Wisconsin was a middling program; Dick Bennett made it out of the first round once, and while that once was a Final Four appearance, that team only went 8-8 in the Big Ten. The Badgers went 60 years without a Big Ten championship.

Enter Bo Ryan: Three regular season Big Ten championships in ten years, Wisconsin's first post-Korean War conference championships. The Badgers won seven tournament games in its history (three in 1940, four in the 2000 Final Four run); Bo Ryan has won 14. Wisconsin made seven tournaments before Ryan's entrance; Bo has gone 10 for 10, and has only been on the bubble once (and they even won a tournament game that year).

But, there's always a but. Wisconsin has been a four seed or better four of the past five seasons, yet made the Sweet 16 only twice in that stretch (and no Elite Eight appearances). All four of those years, the Badgers lost to a lower seed (including losses to 10 seed Davidson and 12 seed Cornell). Wisconsin fans aren't dissatisfied, exactly--at least the ones with a memory that extends beyond the Bennett years--but there is surely some disappointment.

Much has been made of Ryan's ability to make something out of nothing in terms of talent, but that's always been a bit overstated. To be sure, Wisconsin doesn't recruit like Michigan State, much less North Carolina or Kentucky. Still, the Badgers have done all right for themselves over the years. From 2006-08, Wisconsin had six recruits rated four stars or better by Rivals, and many of their names will be familiar: Hughes, Bohannon, Leuer, and Nankivil, along with Rob Wilson and Jared Berggen. The Badgers made were ranked in the Top 25 for their 2006 and 2007 classes. There have been some hidden gems in those years, such as three star Jordan Taylor, but the backbone players of these quality Wisconsin teams had a pedigree; Ryan hasn't been recruiting scrubs.

That will be put to the test starting next year. After averaging two four star recruits per year from 2006-08, Wisconsin has averaged only one from 2009-11. That is not a death sentence (how many four star recruits does Butler get?), but it does mean that Ryan will be working with even less raw talent than usual. It also means that the ceiling might be a little bit lower; a Sweet Sixteen with the guys listed above may have been a letdown, while a couple of Sweet Sixteen appearances over the next few years might be tapping the team's full potential.

Much has been made about Wisconsin's style (every team has a chance to beat them with some hot shooting, since there are so few possessions per game) and their struggles away from the Kohl Center (real but overstated) as ultimate limitations. In other words, these failures are baked into the cake by Bo Ryan, and the style necessarily ends with disappointment in the tournament. I don't think Wisconsin is predetermined, Final Destination style, for tournament failure under Ryan. But suppose they were: would Wisconsin fans today take the deal offered by Mephisto in the opening paragraph? I'm sure they'd think about it a lot longer today than they did before Ryan arrived.