Before this week, Bo Ryan's Badgers teams had reached the Elite Eight only once, in 2005, despite making the NCAA tournament every year. Ryan and Wisconsin will try to reach the Final Four against Arizona on Saturday.
Matthew O'Haren/Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Bo Ryan has won basketball games on every level he’s ever coached. Four Division III national championships at UW-Platteville. Three Big Ten regular-season titles at Wisconsin. Two conference tournament championships. And 703 college victories in all.
By almost any conceivable measure, he is a man whose success has been rivaled only by a select few coaches in the sport. And yet, one bugaboo persists for the Badgers’ 13th-year coach.
If a best active coach to never reach the Final Four exists, Ryan would be prime target No. 1. Before this week, his Badgers teams had reached the Elite Eight only once, in 2005 (losing to North Carolina), despite making the NCAA tournament every year.
Now, Ryan is on the precipice of changing the discourse about his place in the college basketball pecking order. No. 2 seed Wisconsin (29-7) plays No. 1 seed Arizona (33-4) at 7:49 p.m. CT on Saturday in the Honda Center in the West Region final of the NCAA tournament for the right to advance to the Final Four.
It is a moment Ryan has waited on for quite some time. But the fact some believe perception of his coaching ability could change based on one more victory has been bothersome to the players and coaches closest to him.
"He’s won championships at the D-3 level and Big Ten championships throughout his career, but in this tournament hasn’t quite gotten there," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "It’s kind of ridiculous that people say he needs one, but it would definitely be nice to get him one for sure."
Added Badgers forward Sam Dekker: "He’s one of the best coaches to ever be at a high-major program. I don’t think he really has to validate too much more. But just adding a Final Four, he could add to his credentials, to a heck of a Hall of Fame coaching career."
Members of Ryan’s coaching staff, who have seen the way Ryan molds players into men and attacks each practice with the same vigor as the last, say Saturday’s game should not determine his legacy either way.
"If that’s how a person is judged, I’m probably the wrong person to ask," Badgers assistant coach Lamont Paris said. "When they asked me before LeBron (James) had won world championships, I still said he was the greatest. I didn’t need him to win three or four to validate that. I really judge the body of work. It’s hard for me to say a guy is judged by that. He’s obviously a great coach, period. I don’t know if the conversation needs to go more."
Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard, who has worked with Ryan for 20 years dating to their days together at UW-Platteville, said Ryan was comfortable enough in his own skin not to be bothered by criticism.
But in an era in which success is judged more instantly, and perhaps harshly, in a 24-7, social media world, there are likely to be detractors unless or until Ryan reaches the final weekend of the college basketball season.
Some have suggested Ryan’s style of coaching in years past — playing at a slower pace, working the shot clock on offense and recruiting unheralded players that require time to develop — has not been conducive to making a deep run in the tournament. But this year’s team appears to possess more of everything — more talent and athleticism, better shooters and players capable of playing at a faster pace.
All of it very well could help push Ryan over the top and make discussions over his lack of NCAA tournament success moot, whether those discussions have been fair or not.
"I don’t think he needs a certain thing to show the kind of coach he is," Dekker said. "But this would be great. We want to get this for him. He wants to get down there. We feel like we have the group that can do it. With that confidence, hopefully we can get a win on Saturday night and head down there."
Chester connection: If you’ve been around Ryan for any length of time, you likely have heard he hails from a Pennsylvania town called Chester. And on Friday, Ryan was happy to answer questions about his hometown during his meeting with media members. In fact, he answered six of them.
The questions were due, in large part, to the play of Arizona freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who also is a Chester native. The two met for the first time last summer, before Hollis-Jefferson left for Arizona, at the Boys & Girls Club of Chester.
"I just keep encouraging them to use basketball to learn about other things," Ryan said. "To get an education, to learn about things that are going to be much more important to them later when the ball stops bouncing. But Rondae is a great example of pulling himself up and going out and making something."
This season, Hollis-Jefferson is averaging 9.1 points and 5.7 rebounds for the Wildcats. Earlier in the week, he took a picture with Ryan in the bowels of the Honda Center so he could post it on his Facebook page.
Hollis-Jefferson said he had heard stories about Ryan for quite some time. Ryan was a standout basketball player at Chester High in the 1960s.
"I heard that he was a winner," Hollis-Jefferson said. "I heard that he had a passion for basketball that you don’t see in a lot of people from Chester. But a lot of people love to win from Chester. But he was one of those guys that you could tell loved to win.
"You hear stories about everybody that was good from Chester. Since he made it, you hear it a lot more."