Target on their back
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - Bo Ryan can only coach his team. Now in his 13th year at the University of Wisconsin, Ryan realizes the one thing he can control is how he deals with the 16 kids that make up this year’s squad. But he’s also aware that with the Badgers sitting at 16-0, and ranked No. 3 in the country, his guys will get each team’s best effort – starting with Indiana (11-5, 1-2) on Tuesday night in Bloomington.
“I know the thing about the target. I understand all that,” Ryan said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “Just look around the country. It's conference time. Anything can happen. Our guys know it. They're not practicing any different now than they did a month ago, I can tell you that.”
They may not be practicing any different but the environment they’ve dealt with the past few days has been. For the first time this year crowd noise was piped into their sessions – an effort to get them used to what will likely be an uncomfortably loud night at the 17,472-seat Assembly Hall.
“Indiana is a wild place,” guard Josh Gasser said. “It gets pretty loud. The students are back, so it’s going to be a charged up environment. Might as well prepare for what we’re going into.”
Ryan said he started using crowd noise in practice during his days at UW-Platteville – a place where he won four Division III National Championships.
“You talk about a target on your back,” Ryan said. “We got to be the team that filled every gym, and everybody wanted to kick us, so they packed their small gyms. You talk about loud, people have asked about places in the Big Ten. Have you ever been to Eau Clare in the '80s and '90s, Stevens Point, Whitewater, our gym at Platteville at that time?
“So, yeah, we've piped in noise at Platteville a few times; we've done it here a few times.”
What they’ll be dealing with is an Indiana program they’ve beaten 12 straight times, with five of those coming on the Hoosiers’ home floor. Before Ryan showed up in 2001 the Badgers had gone 25 years without a win away from Madison against one of college basketball’s blue bloods. But none of that will matter on Tuesday night.
“It’s one of the most famous venues in college basketball,” Gasser said of 42-year-old building. “You go in there just expecting it to be a hard fought game. Every game against Indiana is because they’re well coached. They’ve got a lot of talent. And then we go into the environment with those thousands of fans screaming at you, it’s just a tough place to win. We’re going to have to be on our ‘A’ game in order to come out with a victory. And we’re prepared to do so.”
During the streak Wisconsin has won by an average of 14 points, including a 32-point road victory in 2010. Along with the blowouts, though, have been memorable moments like Brian Butch banking home a late 3-pointer in 2008 to give the Badgers a 68-66 victory. There was a pair of wins in the Big Ten tournament, and last year’s 64-59 upset when Indiana was ranked No. 2 in the country.
This year’s Hoosiers are still trying to find themselves. Four of their five starters on last year’s Sweet Sixteen team are gone, so they’ve been counting on sophomore Yogi Ferrell (17.5 points per game) and true freshman Noah Vonleh (12.3 points per game, 9.3 rebounds per game) to lead them.
“He kind of reminds me of a Keifer Sykes of Green Bay,” Gasser said of Ferrell. “He had a really good game against us. (He’s) just a small, quick, little jitterbug out there that can shoot it from the outside or get to the rim…He’s just a tough kid. He wants to win. He definitely brings a different element with his speed and quickness.”
Indiana coach Tom Crean saw his team overcome a 14-point deficit on Saturday to beat Penn State – something that also caught Ryan’s eye.
“They didn't waver. They did what they had to do to come back. So that shows they've matured already,” Ryan said. “But Indiana's a good team. We know it, and we know what we're going into.”
Crean and Ryan have a relationship that – at times – has been heated. Starting when he was with Marquette, Crean is 3-14 all-time against Ryan and the Badgers. And last year – after Crean fell to 0-9 while at IU – he gave Ryan a blow-by handshake that didn’t go unnoticed on a national level. They had a more cordial interaction following Wisconsin’s Big Ten tournament win and the always fiery Crean had nothing but nice things to say about Ryan on Monday.
“I have great respect for him. I always have,” he said. “I think what I respect about him is that he’s one of the great competitors around. I think he’d be the kind of person that would compete in anything and want to win. I think you have to respect that more than anything else. He’s always been very gracious to me and I hope he would feel for the most part I have with him. I have tremendous respect for that entire program.”
Crean and the Hoosiers are still looking for that signature win – one similar to what the Badgers got on their last visit.
“They probably have us circled on their schedule. They want to play us. We beat them twice last year. Once on their home floor and once in the Big Ten tournament,” said Gasser, who missed last season due to a knee injury. “They’re definitely going to be ready. They’re going to fired up and ready to go. They’re a very talented team so we need to go in there expecting they’re going to give their best and we need to give ours just to match that. Otherwise, we probably won’t come out with a win.
“I’m excited. I’m ready to go. We’re definitely well-prepared for these guys so it’s all about execution now.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin