Rarely do opponents shudder at the prospect of facing Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament. Why should they? The Badgers aren’t known for their talent, aren’t recognized for being athletic and certainly aren’t notorious for blowing teams out.
They are, however, developing a reputation for another trait—upsetting the country’s elite teams.
Saturday’s win over No. 3 Michigan was no fluke, even though some would say Ben Brust’s half-court heave was pure luck. I’d argue that Tim Hardaway Jr.’s three-pointer just moments before with a hand in his face was almost equally as fortuitous. You decide.
Luck or not, the Badgers eventually won in overtime, improving to 8-3 in conference play, after yet another Brust three-pointer that proved to be the game winner.
The win marked the sixth time in the last seven games that Wisconsin had defeated an AP top-5 team at home. Even if Brust’s shot was lucky, what can one make of the rest of the wins under Bo Ryan, which includes an upset of No. 1 Ohio State in 2011?
Much is made of the Badgers’ advantage at the Kohl Center, a venue that’s seen Wisconsin lose a total of 17 times in the last 12 years. Why fear the Badgers as long as they’re not at home?
Because the win over Michigan isn’t even the best win the Badgers have to date. That occurred in Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, when Wisconsin held the second-highest scoring offense in the country to 59 points—by far the Hoosiers’ lowest total of the season.
In a nod to Bo Ryan's consistency, CBS' Jon Rothstein tweeted following the win:
Wisconsin plays at an aggravatingly slow pace and typically gets their opponents to play their tempo as well. It’s Bo Ryan’s way of leveling the playing field when most top recruits would rather be featured in an offense as opposed to solely a component of one.
In the win over Indiana, the Badgers forced the Hoosiers into just 59 possessions, 10 possessions fewer than they’d averaged throughout every other regulation game, according to KenPom.com. Against Michigan, the Wolverines had the ball for 68 possessions, including overtime. Had the game ended in regulation, it would’ve been tied for the fourth-slowest game of the Wolverines’ season.
Since the Badgers typically hold the ball for the majority of the shot clock, it forces teams to defend for extended periods of time, thus wearing them down. Teams have to fight through constant motion and dozens of screens just to ensure the Badgers don’t get a choice shot in their swing offense.
The other added benefit of slowing the game down is that it plays right into the hands of Wisconsin’s style. Make no mistake; the Badgers are a three-point shooting team.
Check out the highlights from Wisconsin's win over No. 13 Illinois, where six different Badgers knocked down at least one three.
For years, Ryan has recruited stretch forwards capable of decent perimeter shooting. Brian Butch, Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil are a few recent examples. But this year, the mantle has been passed to forwards Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz, Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. The entire starting five is capable of knocking down three-pointers, which is why keeping the game close is so important—hence the slow play.
It doesn’t matter that the Badgers shoot just under 35 percent on three-pointers. More than a third of their points come from beyond the perimeter, the highest ratio in the Big Ten. It’s also why, in a season where they’ve struggled mightily from the free throw line (61.9 percent), Wisconsin has been content to take their chances from the perimeter, where they’re less likely to get fouled.
On the defensive end, Bo Ryan’s teams always make it a priority to limit their opponents to a single shot. This season, both forwards Ryan Evans (7.7) and Jared Berggren (6.8) rank in the top 10 in rebounds per game. But it’s not just the trunks in the middle of the lane that are expected to crash the glass.
All players, including the guards, are expected to follow their man to the glass, which is why the Badgers so rarely have transition breaks. Wisconsin has five players who average at least 3.5 rebounds per game, which has contributed to the top defensive rebounding percentage in the Big Ten at 72.6.
Every year we hear about the keys to winning in March; don’t turn the ball over, rebound, hit your free throws and excel from the perimeter. The Badgers have been among the best teams in the country the last few seasons at not turning the ball over, and as we’ve already examined, they are a volume-shooting team from the perimeter.
Bo Ryan’s formula has already taken out four ranked teams this season, which is tied with Syracuse for the second-most in the country. Dismiss the Badgers at your own peril. You’ve been fairly warned.