ANAHEIM, Calif. — Back in November, after his team defeated Florida in the second game of the season, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan received a text from his son, Matt.
“This is the year,” it read.
Bo appreciated the message—but it was one he’d heard before.
Season after season in Madison, Ryan has felt like he had a team good enough to reach the Final Four. But he could never get over the hump.
There was the squad in 2005 that lost to eventual national champion North Carolina in the Elite Eight. Three years later, Wisconsin won the Big Ten title but was upset by Stephen Curry and Davidson in the Sweet 16.
Ryan has averaged nearly 25 victories a year in his 13 seasons at Wisconsin, but nationally he became known more for floundering in March than for flourishing during the other four months of the season. Ryan was a good coach, the narrative went, but he’d never be deemed elite until he made the Final Four.
“He’ll tell you that didn’t bug him,” said Otto Puls, the Badgers equipment manager for the past 17 years. “But trust me, it did.”
Ryan won’t have to worry about that anymore.
In what was easily the biggest win of his career to date, Ryan guided Wisconsin to a 64-63 overtime victory against Arizona in the Elite Eight. The win, which came before 17,814 fans at the Honda Center, catapults the Badgers into the Final Four for the first time since former coach Dick Bennett led them there in 2000. Ryan arrived a year later.
The Badgers will play Kentucky Saturday in Arlington, Texas, which is about 20 minutes west of Dallas.
“He didn’t need this to validate himself as a coach,“ forward Sam Dekker said. “Everyone knew he was great. This only adds to it. Now he’ll be remembered as one of the best coaches in history.”
Saturday’s victory sparked a massive celebration back in Madison, where fans emptied out of bars and swarmed State Street in celebration. And staff members said they were expecting quite a scene late Saturday night when they returned to the team hotel in Anaheim.
Ryan, they guessed, would likely skip the festivities and retreat to his room to enjoy a glass or three of wine with his wife and children. Exciting as the victory over Arizona was, the game was also emotionally taxing.
Saturday would’ve been the 90th birthday of Ryan’s father, Butch. The two were extremely close, as they attended the Final Four together year after year after year. Butch passed away in August, just seven months before his son advanced to college basketball’s biggest stage.
“It’s going to be tough to be there coaching without him,” Ryan said. “I can’t imagine him or my mom being any happier. I’m happy that I’ve been able to be on the sideline and do this thing called coaching because my parents gave me the opportunity.”
Ryan’s crowning achievement certainly didn’t come easily.
Saturday’s game against Arizona, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, was a grueling affair that was as intense of a game as either team had played all season. Get this: The Wildcats-Badgers showdown was a one-possession game for the final 18 minutes, as neither team led by more than three points.
“It felt like Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali there for a little while,” said Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky, the star of the game with 28 points and 11 boards.
Wisconsin eventually emerged when Arizona’s Nick Johnson was whistled for a player-control foul as he drove to the basket with 3.2 seconds remaining in overtime with his team trailing 64-63. It was a questionable call considering the late stage of the game.
“I thought it was a really, really tough call,” Wildcats coach Sean Miller said. “I’m going to stop there. I’ve been fined (once before).”
Arizona, however, got the ball back when it forced the Badgers into a turnover on the inbounds pass—a play that officials spent nearly five minutes reviewing on the monitor. The Wildcats got the ball to Johnson, but he wasn’t able to get off a shot before the final horn.
Wisconsin players stormed the court in celebration, eventually ascending one by one up a ladder to take a celebratory snip of the net. Ryan was handed the scissors last as fans chanted, “Bo! Bo! Bo! Bo! Bo!”
“My face is going to hurt tomorrow from smiling so much,” Ryan’s wife, Kelly, said.
The Badgers were touched by the scene too.
“It was a great moment for him,” Dekker said. “He may be hard on us and he may get on us and we may not understand it sometimes. But he cares for you. He’s proud of us.
“He embraced me real tight on the court and said, ‘Come here, Sammy! We’ve got more work to do. Let’s get to Dallas.’”
Wisconsin will have one of the more impressive resumes of any team in the Final Four. The Badgers finished second in the Big Ten standings and defeated Virginia, a No. 1 seed in this year’s tournament, in nonconference play along with NCAA tournament teams Michigan State, Michigan, Saint Louis and Florida.
The victory over the No. 1-ranked Gators is when Matt Ryan sensed his father’s team could be special. There was a chemistry there, he said, a looseness he’d rarely noticed even in Bo’s most successful squads.
“That’s why I sent him that text,” said Matt, 34. “You could just feel it with this team.”
Bo apparently remembered his son’s text from nearly five months ago. As he made his way around the court, hugging family members, friends, players and even strangers, Ryan found Matt and embraced him.
“You were right!” he said. “You were right!”