CHICAGO — When word circulated earlier this week that Bo Ryan had been named the Big Ten Coach of the Year, two conflicting reactions swirled across basketball circles in the Midwest.
Many believed Ryan, the 12th-year Wisconsin coach, had earned the honor for overachieving with a team that lost its starting point guard less than two weeks before the season. The Badgers won 21 games and finished in the top four of the conference for the 12th straight season under Ryan — no small feat considering the competition.
Still, others voiced their dismay — even outrage at the perceived snub of Indiana coach Tom Crean. How could Ryan, the coach of a fourth-place team, take the award over Crean, the coach of a first-place team in the nation’s toughest conference with a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed on the horizon?
The debate about which man deserved the honor more figured to crank into high gear when the two programs met Saturday afternoon in a Big Ten tournament semifinal. Maybe Crean didn’t have a piece of individual hardware, the sentiment went, but he could at least prove his team was best once and for all on the conference’s biggest stage.
Consider that argument dead and buried.
Ryan and Wisconsin put any lingering questions about the validity of his coach of the year honor out to pasture. No. 22 Wisconsin demoralized third-ranked Indiana with a 68-56 victory at the United Center, beating the Hoosiers for a second time this season to move on to the Big Ten championship game.
Wisconsin (23-10) will face No. 10 Ohio State (25-7) for the title at 2:30 p.m. CT Sunday.
“If anyone doesn’t think he’s coach of the year this year, you haven’t watched basketball,” Badgers forward Sam Dekker said of Ryan. “He’s showing it again how good of a coach he is, how he prepares us to play these games. That’s a heck of a team Indiana has. Coach puts us in the right spots to win, and it worked again.”
Wisconsin didn’t simply beat Indiana; it squashed the Hoosiers at their own game. The Badgers scored more fast-break points (9-5), more second-chance points (18-11) and more bench points (17-8). Wisconsin outrebounded Indiana 35-30, despite IU’s Cody Zeller, a projected NBA lottery pick, hauling down 11 boards.
What’s more, Wisconsin held Indiana to a season-low 56 points — 18 below the Hoosiers’ scoring average — to produce Indiana’s largest margin of defeat this season.
For any further proof of Ryan’s dominance over Crean, consider this statistic: Ryan has won 14 of 17 games against Crean in their coaching careers dating to Crean’s days at intrastate rival Marquette. Wisconsin has also beaten Indiana in 12 straight games, tied for the most consecutive victories against the Hoosiers all-time. The past 10 have come with Crean in charge.
Ryan has somehow managed to humble Crean — a man who only a week earlier taunted Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer on the court after a Hoosiers victory by saying Meyer helped “wreck the program” when he previously served as an Indiana assistant.
“They are a very good team,” Crean said Saturday of Wisconsin. “Extremely well coached, disciplined, great staffs, inside-outside scoring, great balance and just an all-around great team.
“They are an excellent team and have been for a long, long time. As long as he’s the coach there, they will be.”
Despite the fact Wisconsin had already beaten Indiana 64-59 in Assembly Hall earlier this season, the Badgers entered Saturday’s game as six- or seven-point underdogs, depending on the oddsmaker in Las Vegas. Those numbers signified the continued slight of a program and a coach that have garnered a reputation for being overlooked nationally.
Inside Wisconsin’s locker room following Saturday’s victory, players provided examples of Ryan’s coaching ability that people outside the program haven’t seen on a daily basis.
Point guard Traevon Jackson said Ryan’s focus on holding players accountable for their mistakes have helped them drastically improve after starting the season just 6-4. Center Frank Kaminsky noted that Ryan’s attention to detail on opponent tendencies during scouting report meetings prepared them for specific moments in games.
And forward Ryan Evans pointed to Ryan’s ability to find a balance between scolding players and offering the kind of encouragement necessary for success.
Evans has struggled so badly from the free-throw line this season that his attempts became somewhat of a running joke. At one point, Evans was shooting below 40 percent from the line. Following a mid-February game against Northwestern in which Evans shot just 2 of 5 from the stripe, the coach made a suggestion to his player in practice.
Players were shooting 100 free throws apiece, and Evans had just made 20 of 50 tries.
“Why don’t you try a jump shot for your next 50?” Ryan told him.
Evans said he made 45 of 50 attempts as a jump shooter and has used the unorthodox method despite facing ridicule in opposing arenas across the Big Ten. He has made 61.1 percent of his free throws the past six games. Before the switch, he had made 40.4 percent.
“He has helped us out so much this season staying consistent and being that leader figure for us and also giving me the courage to go out there and do something like shooting a jump shot free throw,” Evans said. “He helps you not just in coaching but in so many different aspects of life. We definitely believe that he deserved coach of the year, and he’s deserved it many more times. He’s phenomenal.”
Afterward, Ryan deflected credit for his accomplishments, saying his success was the product of being surrounded by good coaches and players.
“I’ve never out-coached anyone,” he said. “I’ve never out-maneuvered anyone, out-strategized anyone … As long as they keep listening, keep working, we’ll keep doing the things that we do, just try to do them better all the time.”
Few Big Ten teams have done those little things better than Wisconsin with Ryan in charge. Saturday offered yet another example of his coaching brilliance, another reason his coach of the year honor was warranted.