Ryan’s determination, vision have guided Badgers to Final Four
MADISON, Wis. — The sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean were tantalizingly close, beckoning members of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville men’s basketball team. A trip to Hawaii for a bunch of college kids ought to include the requisite levels of beach time, after all, and players were ready for sun and fun.
Bo Ryan was in no such mood.
One day earlier, Platteville had lost to Division II Hawaii Pacific, 69-68, on a last-second shot. The defeat snapped Platteville’s 36-game winning streak, the longest in the nation, and was the Pioneers’ first loss in 672 days.
Where did Ryan direct his players to go? The film room, where Ryan popped in a VHS tape of the game and broke down the most minute of points: a ball fake here, a hand target on a pass to the post there. This team, Ryan knew, could be special. But only if players were willing to put in the work.
"Always those fine details," recalled Beau Buchs, a freshman forward on that 1998-99 Platteville team. "We could have been on the beach. But we sat in there and watched film and studied. He knew we should have won the game, and he wasn’t going to take that too lightly."
Added former Platteville teammate Blake Knutson: "You could tell that Bo really wanted that one bad. It was like we had lost like seven games in a row, and he was fed up."
Three months later, Platteville would cap a 30-2 season by winning another national championship, the fourth Division III title in Ryan’s coaching career. As the team celebrated, standout guard Merrill Brunson remembered seeing Ryan afterward in the hallway. Ryan commented, perhaps only slightly seriously, that Platteville had made just 1 of 7 3-pointers in all three of its championship games that season — a non-conference tournament, the WIAC tournament and the NCAA tournament final.
"It was interesting how his mind worked from a coaching perspective," Brunson said.
Ryan’s competitive fire and desire for his teams to be the very best have driven him for more than four decades as a coach. And former Platteville players say the same traits that made Ryan successful all those years ago with the Pioneers continue to shine through now, with Wisconsin on the cusp of a Final Four game against Kentucky. The two teams will meet in a national semifinal at 7:49 p.m. CT Saturday in Arlington, Texas.
Saturday’s game will mark Ryan’s first Final Four appearance in 15 seasons as a Division I coach. But former players believe no moment is too big for Ryan, who made five Final Fours in 15 seasons at Platteville. He is confident because of his preparation, and such confidence still trickles down to the players.
The mission established in October is the same as it is now that the season has reached its final weekend in April. Value the basketball. Play hard, tough-nosed defense. Make practices so difficult that games feel like a breeze. Play with passion and pride, and the rest will fall into place.
"You just get used to playing a certain style," said Brunson, who was MVP of the 1999 Final Four. "If there’s a big game, you can always compare it to a previous game and how to play certain guys. That’s usually in the scouting report. There was never any real excitement. The only excitement was usually after losses. There weren’t too many. But you heard more about those than you ever did wins or successes."
Former Platteville player Rob Jeter, who served as an assistant alongside Ryan for four seasons at Platteville and now is head coach at Milwaukee, said Ryan’s coaching philosophy has not changed one bit over the years. He maintains the same demeanor whether the team wins 16 consecutive games to start a season or loses five of six contests early in Big Ten play — both of which happened before this magical Final Four run.
"He doesn’t waver," Jeter said. "This year really sums up his entire career. Once he sets his mind on how he wants to play, how he wants to attack the game, he doesn’t change. In that four-game stretch where he lost some games, he didn’t change anything that he did defensively. He just did it better. They worked harder at it.
"I think that’s the reason why he’s one of the best coaches ever. He really has a gameplan, and he sticks to that gameplan. He gets the guys to buy into that and to believe it, that this is the way we’re going to win. I thought it was masterful how he got those guys to regroup and put the run that he’s put together."
Ryan himself acknowledged that staying even-keeled was a key to this season’s success. But he could have been talking about any year and any team he’s coached.
"We never got sideways with it," Ryan said. "We didn’t get too down, and we weren’t riding sky high when we had won 16 in a row. So our practices were the same. But you can learn from winning, too. You don’t just have to have bumps to learn, but you can learn a lot while you’re being successful also."
Knutson, who played on two of Ryan’s national title teams at Platteville in the late 1990s, said he knew this year’s group was in for a special NCAA tournament run before the Sweet 16 even began. Badgers center Frank Kaminsky told reporters in Anaheim, Calif., that the team was on "a business trip" to win basketball games and reach the Final Four.
"That’s almost straight from Bo’s mouth," Knutson said. "He’s very business oriented. He knows what needs to be done. He holds you accountable. It’s all those things he expects of you and prepares you for. Do the things you’re supposed to do. You practice hard everyday for this. Be who you are, and you’re going to be all right at the end of the day."
Whether in Hawaii, California or Texas, at Platteville or at Wisconsin, the objective, as always, remains the same.
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