CHICAGO — If college basketball seasons were determined strictly by which program possessed more talent, NCAA tournament organizers would hand over the national championship trophy in October to the team with the best recruiting class.
A ticker-tape parade through the streets of Lexington would be held for Kentucky every year. Why play any games at all?
Of course, that idea is a fallacy. Recruiting rankings and star systems serve only as indicators of individual talent — not a measure of how those individuals meld together with other players to form a unit both unselfish and unflinching in times of adversity.
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If talent mattered most, Michigan would have embarrassed Wisconsin on Friday afternoon at the United Center. The Wolverines’ starting backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. will be playing in an NBA arena near you soon. The Badgers’ entire team may never play in an NBA game.
But star quality is not the principle by which Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan abides. There are far more important factors to him: teamwork, the capacity to embrace criticism, a desire to improve for four years and a willingness to play defense and sacrifice statistics for the benefit of others.
And while Ryan certainly isn’t the only coach to adhere to such tenets, he sure seems to have as much success maximizing his players’ capabilities as anybody in the game.
How else to explain No. 22 Wisconsin’s stunning 68-59 comeback victory against No. 6 Michigan during the second round of the Big Ten tournament? The Badgers managed a measly 10 points in the first 18 minutes and 43 seconds, yet found the reserves of character to hang around anyway by sticking to Ryan’s rules.
“It’s part of the system,” Badgers center Jared Berggren said. “He finds guys that fit the system that are going to buy in and believe and play hard and play tough. It doesn’t matter what the rankings are or what people think the prospects are. We’re going to go out there and compete hard every night and play as a team and just find a way to get some wins.”
Sometimes, Ryan’s system of suffocating the shot clock and playing tough-as-nails defense to neutralize an opponent’s strengths means winning ugly — a criticism he and Wisconsin have heavily absorbed over the years.
Two seasons ago, Penn State edged Wisconsin, 36-33, in the lowest-scoring game in Big Ten tournament history, one several wisecracked set basketball back about five decades.
On Friday, Michigan and Wisconsin appeared headed for another offensive eyesore when the Wolverines led just 20-17 at halftime. The Badgers had made 5 of 29 shots from the field (17.2 percent) and 2 of 13 3-point attempts (15.4 percent).
In the locker room, Wisconsin players did not panic. They had been here many times before — four times this season, in fact, they scored fewer than 48 points in a game.
Point guard Traevon Jackson suggested they work the ball in the post to Berggren and Ryan Evans — a method that helped give Wisconsin a 26-24 lead on Berggren’s layup less than four minutes into the half. The Badgers never trailed again, found their outside stroke and exploded for a season-best 51 second-half points.
It wasn’t sexy, but as usual, it was effective under Ryan, who earned Big Ten Coach of the Year last week after overachieving with unheralded players once more in the toughest conference in the country.
“The guys come in, I take those little stars you lick, and I put four or five of them on each locker,” Ryan said. “Hey, you’re a five-star guy!
“It’s what that star shines like when you’re finished with your career. I’m always looking for guys who are willing to come in, work hard, have talent, and it’s about us. Not individuals. But individuals can thrive. If you’re good, you can get to do a lot of things. So I won’t sell my players short. I’ve got good players who are much better as a result of playing together.”
Of all the programs to experience extended success on a national level — top 25 rankings, conference championships, NCAA Tournament appearances — few, if any, have had to justify doing so with a perceived lack of talent the way Wisconsin does.
Somewhere along the line, the Badgers earned a label as the plucky team that tries hard but isn’t quite good enough to score and contend in the Big Ten or on a national stage. Perhaps some of that misconception comes from making the unwise correlation between talent and recruiting rankings.
Starting forward Mike Bruesewitz, a Scout.com three-star recruit, was not even ranked out of high school at his position. Neither was Jackson or Evans, a two-star player who was cut from his high school team one season.
Bruesewitz, a senior, has heard plenty of such talk. And he is among those who use it as fuel for success.
“We’ve got guys who can play here,” Bruesewitz said. “Everybody looks at Wisconsin, ‘Aw, they just pass the ball. Ho-hum. Play defense.’ We’ve got a lot of guys with a lot of skill here. We’ve got good athletes here. It’s not like we’re bums. We’re still Division I college basketball players. We may not look like them, but we sure can play.”
Wisconsin (22-10) advanced to play third-ranked Indiana (27-5) at 12:40 p.m. CT Saturday in the first Big Ten tournament semifinal. The Hoosiers are a team with decidedly more strengths than the Badgers.
Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell were once four-star recruits. Cody Zeller is a five-star NBA lottery pick and Victor Oladipo is surely headed for the NBA, too.
Wisconsin, which beat Indiana 64-59 in Bloomington during the regular season, isn’t interested in buying the hype.
“Yeah, these guys are NBA guys, but we believe in ourselves as well,” Jackson said. “I think we’ve got a really talented group of guys. When we come together, we can beat anybody.”
Friday’s result against Michigan, warts and all, continued to prove what the Badgers are achieving is no fluke.