Key to 12-0? Adaptability
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - Bo Ryan will tell you averages aren’t based on one or two games or even 12. They are based on a full season of games. And because of that we shouldn’t read into the numbers the University of Wisconsin has put up during the best start in the program’s modern era and best overall start since the 1915-1916 season.
But lets say the averages to this point do matter. Right now the 13th team of the Ryan-era is on pace to score more points per game (74.7ppg) than any other squad. And their field goal shooting percentage (46.9 percent) and 3-point shooting percentage (40.3 percent) would also be the best of Ryan’s tenure that dates back to the 2001-2002 season. So the numbers beg the question. Is this Ryan’s best team in Madison?
“It’s hard to say,” UW-Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter said after his team lost to the Badgers last week. “They’re talented…They’re poised, they’re confident...I know they’re very good, obviously being ranked, but I don’t know if I can say they’re the best. They’re one of the best teams, one of the better teams that Bo’s had at this time.”
Jeter was an assistant under Ryan at UW-Platteville, UW-Milwaukee and Wisconsin, so he knows how the soon-to-be 66-year-old operates, which made his answer predictable. He knows Ryan won’t evaluate this team until every game has been played. But based on what we know so far, this group is likely to be in the conversation by the time they play their final game in late March or early April. It's possible they can top the Elite Eight squad of 2004-2005. They may reach the heights of the 2006-2007 team that was No. 1 in the country for seven days. It's a group that could end up being better than one of Ryan's three Big Ten Championship teams. And the reason? Adaptability.
With one non-conference game to play the No. 4 Badgers have played and won in every way imaginable. Wisconsin has won while scoring in the 40’s and won when scoring 103. They’ve won when shooting 28.8 percent and when shooting 60.5 percent. Victories have come when they’ve given up 85 points and when they’ve given up 38 points.
Wisconsin has four guys that average in double figures, something that’s happened just two other times in Ryan’s tenure. All five guys in the starting lineup, and seven of the top eight players, can hit from the outside, and that’s made their dribble penetration difficult to defend. If the shots aren't falling from outside – which has been the case at times – they’ve got a pair of big men in Frank Kaminsky and freshman Nigel Hayes that have shown the ability to score inside.
This team, that is a mix of talented and inexperienced players with gifted and savvy veterans has faced, and conquered, every task put in their way.
“What’s been great about this start is we’ve been challenged many different ways,” Ben Brust said after a recent game. “High scoring, low scoring, neutral court, away game, home game, ranked team on the road, ranked team at home. We just have a lot of different things that we’ve been able to do.”
And it was planned that way. Knowing what awaited them in the Big Ten the Badgers coaching staff went about putting together a schedule that featured teams with contrasting styles.
While they didn’t have any control over who they played in the neutral site game in South Dakota, Wisconsin lucked out with an athletic St. John’s team that tested them.
A top-12 Florida team came to the Kohl Center and presented some full-court pressure, and though point guard Traevon Jackson had some issues with it, they were able to overcome the Gators.
The Badgers went on the road and survived a very good Green Bay team, thanks in part to Frank Kaminsky’s 14 second-half points and a block on Keifer Sykes to seal it.
Wisconsin went and won the Cancun Challenge by beating a tall West Virginia team before going to Charlottesville and gutting out a win against Virginia when they didn’t shoot well.
And over the past three games they snapped a two-game losing streak to Marquette before playing their best all-around games of the season in wins over Milwaukee and Eastern Kentucky.
“Well, hopefully being adaptable,” assistant coach Greg Gard said of what the non-conference schedule has shown them. “Being able to adjust…I think that’s the biggest thing but also at the same time understand what makes us good…On the defensive end we’re starting to figure that out a little bit more consistently. Offensively, we know that will come and go. There’s not going to be every night we’re going to score 103 points, so we’re going to have to be able to adjust to games… and not get frustrated by it and not let that affect you when the ball isn’t going in. Still find other ways to win the game…”
A lot of players point to that game against Virginia when the Badgers scored just 48 points. The early season worries about the defense were eased that night when the Cavaliers went for 38 points on 23.4 percent shooting.
“I was really happy that we won that way,” guard Josh Gasser said the day after the game. “It was kind of frustrating, for me personally, to see us play so poorly defensively and give up that many points throughout our first couple games. Just to show that we can win games in a variety of ways is really important because once Big Ten season comes there’s going to be games where you’ve got to grind them out like that. There’s going to be games where you’ve got to outscore your opponents and we’ve shown we can win a plethora of ways.”
And they’ve done it against good competition. They are currently ranked No. 1 in the RPI and BPI. Their nine wins against teams in the RPI top-100 are four more than any other team. And their strength of schedule is top-10 in the country.
“Just being ready for any situation that’s thrown at us,” forward Sam Dekker said of what’s been the key to the great start. “I said the first game that we’re a team that has to be able to respond, and I think we have a group that can do that. No matter what high’s or what lows we have going on we’ve got to come in the next play prepared for what’s going to happen.”
The exhibition tour in Canada has played a significant role in what Wisconsin has accomplished so far. Those five games, along with the 13 non-conference opponents, will have the Badgers primed for Big Ten play.
“When we hit December 29th,” Gard said, “when we’re done with that non-conference schedule, there won’t be any reason we’re not prepared for what’s coming the next three months.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin