With spirit of Bo Ryan’s dad with them, Badgers dance into Final Four
Arizona (33-5) possessed more athletes and, on paper, presented the toughest defense Wisconsin (30-7) would see all season in Saturday night's duel. But the Badgers stood tall, helping send their head coach, Bo Ryan, to his first Final Four appearance while coaching in the NCAA's Division I ranks.
ANAHEIM, Calif. — He would’ve danced the night away in the team locker room like a college kid, tears welling over his eyes and spilling uncontrollably down his cheeks. Those who knew William "Butch" Ryan well were certain of it. He would’ve embraced his son, tussled his hair and told him how proud he was of perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his lengthy coaching career.
During the minutes after No. 2 seed Wisconsin had outlasted No. 1 seed Arizona in overtime, 64-63, in the most thrilling, back-and-forth, edge-of-your seat game of the NCAA tournament, Bo Ryan’s thoughts were a muddled mess. In his 13th year at Wisconsin, the Badgers had finally advanced to the Final Four, relinquishing Ryan of the title as the best active coach never to reach the last weekend of the college basketball season.
It was a moment in time Ryan had always hoped to share with his closest friend and confidant. But Bo’s biggest fan was not in the stands. His father had passed away at age 89 in August.
So, Wisconsin players danced Saturday night without him, surrounding Bo on the Honda Center court. They donned gray hats and T-shirts that read "Net Worthy," as champions of the West Region, and took turns cutting down strands of the hoop. They saved the last snip for Ryan, while the crowd chanted, "Bo, Bo, Bo."
Up in the second deck, someone held a sign that read simply: "This one’s for Butch."
As he left the floor, Bo Ryan clutched the net tightly in his left hand, pumped his right fist and strolled to the locker room. He told his team, as he has often during this remarkable run, of his pride in their performance and thanked them for allowing him the opportunity to coach for another 40 minutes.
And then, Bo couldn’t help but think of Butch.
"Just so you guys know," he said to his team, "this would have been my dad’s 90th birthday."
"He had a little tear in his eyes," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "So you know his dad was smiling down on him at that time."
If one truly believes in cosmic forces beyond the control of human beings, Saturday seemed to represent a pretty good example of such a case. Arizona (33-5) possessed more athletes and, on paper, presented the toughest defense Wisconsin (30-7) would see all season.
Yet it was the Badgers who proved up to the task in the biggest game of the year, overcoming an intensely pro-Arizona crowd and the play of future NBA Draft picks Aaron Gordon (eight points, 18 rebounds) and Kaleb Tarczewski (12 points), along with Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson (16 points).
Wisconsin never even led in the first half but managed to enter halftime trailing just 28-25. UW finally took its first lead at 36-34 with 15 minutes left in the game on a Bronson Koenig jumper, and the teams engaged in a seesaw battle the rest of the way.
Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson had an opportunity to win the game in regulation but missed a jumper from the left wing over Gordon, sending the game to overtime tied at 54. And the tension in the arena ratcheted even further for the extra session.
"It was a fight," Dekker said. "If I wasn’t wearing my mouth guard, my teeth would have been gone."
In those five minutes, Wisconsin played with the kind of passion and excellence Ryan knew his team was capable of seven months ago. Later in the night, Ryan acknowledged in a moment of reflection that he saw things in this team during an August trip to Canada for five exhibition games — just weeks before his father died — that made him believe this group could finally reach that elusive Final Four. And he pushed them to believe in themselves, too.
"I was a lot tougher on this group than I was on last year’s group," Ryan said. "I just wasn’t going to accept them not understanding that they could be pretty good."
During overtime, Wisconsin never fell behind. The Badgers pushed ahead for good, 61-59, on center Frank Kaminsky’s layup with 2:21 left and clung for dear life the rest of the way. UW led, 64-63, when Jackson lost the ball out of bounds with just 2.3 seconds remaining, setting up one last opportunity for Arizona to win.
But Johnson caught the inbound pass running away from the basket and couldn’t get a shot off over Badgers guard Josh Gasser as time expired, sending Wisconsin’s entire team into hysterics — and sending Badgers fans flooding State Street back in Madison.
"It really feels like we won the lottery," said Kaminsky, who finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds. "If I were to describe it, I would celebrate like that if I won the lottery, but this was 10 times better."
The final sequence sealed Ryan’s trip to the Final Four and provided even more symbolism for the 66-year-old man who has devoted his entire life to basketball.
Butch Ryan, a pipefitter, decorated World War II serviceman and former youth sports league coach, became a fixture at every Final Four when his son became an assistant coach at Wisconsin in 1976. That first Final Four was held at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, a short drive from their hometown of Chester, Penn. From that point on, Bo and Butch never missed a Final Four, with Butch bringing along his RV. And over the years, the stories of Butch’s Final Four exploits and his gregarious nature grew.
He would bypass security guards and fans to shake hands and swap stories with the likes of Dean Smith. He once held an impromptu dance-off with MC Hammer. In 1994, Butch noticed all the other RVs in his row had team flags, and he did not. So he tied an orange UW-Platteville sweatshirt on and pulled it up the flagpole to support his son, who was on his way to coaching the Division III program to four national titles.
A year ago, Bo and Butch watched the Final Four together in an Atlanta hotel. Butch was too ill to attend the festivities at the arena, but Bo flew him out so they could enjoy the games, away from Bo’s coaching buddies and former players.
Bo didn’t know at the time it would be their last Final Four together.
"He was always about the kids that he helped mentor growing up, and that’s why I do it," Bo Ryan said late Saturday night. "To be able to see the faces on these guys, to see the genuine excitement, I can remember some of the great teams that he had of kids and their first championships and how they acted and just had the joy."
That joy lasted well into Sunday morning for Wisconsin, which advanced to play the winner of the Michigan/Kentucky game in the Final Four next Saturday.
This time, Bo Ryan won’t be watching from the stands. He’ll have company on the bench, in more ways than one.