MADISON, Wis. — They say the basketball being played in Indiana is prettier, where the Hoosiers score more points than almost any school around and run past opponents like gazelles. Two potential NBA lottery picks fill the roster, and a Big Ten championship is in sight. The program is, most would agree, in excellent hands under coach Tom Crean.
They say the basketball being played in Wisconsin is uglier, where the Badgers surrender fewer points than almost any school around and crawl past opponents like snails. No first-team all-conference picks populate the roster, yet a Big Ten championship is in sight. The program is, most would agree, in excellent hands under coach Bo Ryan.
Crean and Ryan have won this season with divergent styles and differing levels of expectations, and as a result, are considered among the two leading candidates for Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.
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Indiana (24-4, 12-3) has hovered near the top of the national rankings all season (and sat upon them three different times) and is in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Hoosiers also lead the Big Ten race for first place by one game. Expectations have been met.
Wisconsin (20-8, 11-4) lost its starting point guard for the season, dropped out of the national rankings for three months and is in line for a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers also trail the Big Ten race for first place by one game. Expectations have been surpassed.
It is easy to suggest Crean has done all he can with a team that entered the season awash in national championship aspirations and therefore deserves to be the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year. If Indiana wins the toughest conference in college hoops, it would be difficult to deny Crean the honor.
But take a closer look at Ryan’s accomplishments, and the answer isn’t so clear-cut. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say Ryan is even more deserving of Big Ten Coach of the Year honors given his team’s position and all it has overcome.
Think about it: Wisconsin began the season projected to finish fifth in the Big Ten behind Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. And that was before the Badgers lost starting point guard Josh Gasser for the season with a torn ACL in late October.
Ryan then juggled George Marshall and Traevon Jackson at the point, utilizing each player’s strengths. Marshall possesses quickness and explosiveness, while Jackson demonstrates toughness and resiliency. Together, they have transformed into solid point guards, as Ryan’s slowdown style of play and defensive focus has allowed each to better understand their roles with the team.
Additionally, Ryan displayed patience with forward Ryan Evans, a career 71.1 percent free-throw shooter entering the season who inexplicably has barely cracked 40 percent this year. Despite cries to play freshman Sam Dekker more and Evans less, Ryan never wavered in his belief that both were integral parts to the team dynamic and Evans had earned the right to be on the floor.
One could argue Wisconsin’s success is merely the result of Ryan’s system that limits possessions and slows the pace to keep the Badgers in games. But it takes players knowing how to run that system to perfection to win consistently in a conference as difficult as the Big Ten.
This season, Wisconsin is turning the ball over less than any team in the country, averaging 9.39 turnovers per game. Michigan is second nationally at 9.5. The Badgers also rank No. 9 in scoring defense (55.7 points per game). No other Big Ten team ranks in the top 25 in that category.
While Crean and Indiana have won games by more points and with more flash, that isn’t what the Coach of the Year award is about. It is about the coach who raises the play of his team within one season to a level that simply wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
Indiana, for all its firepower, is just one game ahead of Wisconsin. Let us also not forget Wisconsin beat Indiana, 64-59, in Assembly Hall earlier this season in the teams’ only meeting. The criteria for Coach of the Year honors shouldn’t be entirely about overachieving, of course. But a precedent has been set in the Big Ten with past winners demonstrating finishing first in the conference is not a prerequisite for winning the award.
In 2011, Purdue’s Matt Painter won the honor despite finishing two games behind first-place Ohio State. In 2009, Penn State coach Ed DeChellis shared the award with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo after the Nittany Lions tied for fourth. That Penn State team didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament.
And when Painter won Coach of the Year in 2008, Purdue finished second in the Big Ten to Wisconsin, but the Boilermakers beat the Badgers twice.
Although Ryan has won two conference Coach of the Year awards, he hasn’t been honored since 2003. He isn’t any worse of a coach now then he was then, and many believe this season is among his best coaching jobs at Wisconsin.
Even after Wisconsin’s 77-46 victory against Nebraska on Tuesday night, Ryan wasn’t willing to settle. He stressed the value of players watching film sessions with an eye on improvement — the sign of a coach who understands what is ahead.
“I want them saying to themselves, ‘You know, I can be better,'” Ryan said. “‘I can finish better. I can chase better. I can rotate better. I can handle the ball better.’ That’s when you know you’ve got something when guys are doing that in late February.”
Ryan’s method isn’t flashy, but he clearly has something special with this team as March approaches. And his ability to mold the Badgers into a title contender against the odds should be rewarded with Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.