Built to last
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - “He’s a Wisconsin type of player.”
You hear recruiting experts say it all the time. Same with national analysts, talking heads on T.V. and those that babble on the radio for a living. And it’s not just fans that hear it. So does University of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan when it comes to recruiting.
“It's amazing how many times we get our first lead on a player where they say, ‘Oh, this is a Wisconsin player. This is your kind of player,’” Ryan said. “And I say, ‘Well, why do you say that?’ ‘Well, because right now he's a little raw, but if he gets with you, he's going to be really good.’”
It’s players like those that have the Badgers in the Final Four for the first time since 2000 and just the third time ever. Guys that, for whatever reason, don’t standout to some of college basketball’s bluebloods. Oh, Ryan has brought in some guys like that during his time in Madison. Appleton’s Brian Butch was a McDonald’s All-American when he picked Wisconsin over North Carolina and others in 2003. Joe Krabbenhoft was a 5-star player out of South Dakota in 2005. And current freshman Bronson Koenig had offers from the Tarheels, Kansas and Duke. But the lifeblood of the program under Ryan has been of the recruit and develop variety that looks a lot like the basketball version of Ted Thompson’s draft and develop system as the general manager of the Green Bay Packers.
“Just because (there are a bunch of) stars behind their name doesn’t guarantee anything,” assistant coach Greg Gard said of players coming into college. “There (are) a lot of teams out there, that have a lot of stars behind their (names), that are sitting (at) home (right now).”
Throughout Ryan’s 13 years as head coach, the cases of players coming in that weren’t highly rated by recruiting services only to develop under the coaching staff’s tutelage and become good to very good college players are limitless. Names like Mike Wilkinson, Kam Taylor, Alando Tucker, Michael Flowers, Marcus Landry and Jordan Taylor. All of those players were considered 3-star players or less and each made a lasting impact at Wisconsin.
But you don’t need to look that far back to find prime examples of lightly recruited players doing big things at Wisconsin. Of the eight players in the rotation this year only two – Koenig and Sam Dekker – were rated higher than 3-star players by Rivals.com
First-team All-Big Ten pick Frank Kaminsky? A 3-star guy that had offers from Northwestern, Bradley and DePaul among others.
Ben Brust, who owns the school-record for career 3-pointers, was also a 3-star player when he committed to Iowa before eventually ending up at Wisconsin.
That same 3-star label was applied to All-Big Ten defensive team member Josh Gasser and honorable mention All-Big Ten pick Traevon Jackson. Freshman Nigel Hayes, who had an offer from Ohio State, was also tabbed as a 3-star player.
So how does Wisconsin take players that appear not to be as talented as some others and mold them into a program that hasn’t finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten during Ryan’s tenure and is now one of just four teams still playing for a national championship this year?
Well first, the players they get do have talent. You don’t win without talent, especially as much as Ryan has. His Big Ten record of 156-66 (.703) is the best in conference history and he now has 704 wins in his career that included stops at UW-Platteville and UW-Milwaukee.
“It's just kind of funny how we're not highly recruited, but yet we still win some games,” Gasser said this week. “It's the kind of tradition we have, and it's great to have.
“We obviously have great talent. For Coach Ryan to do it year in and year out, it obviously means you're doing something right.”
It’s not so much the tradition as it is the culture that Ryan, his coaching staff and the players have established since 2001. While their opponent on Saturday night, eighth-seeded Kentucky, will roll in with a starting five of all freshmen, and all guys that were five-star prospects in high school, second-seeded Wisconsin will trot out five guys that have worked hard, and in most cases, sat behind upperclassmen and learned what it took to be a contributor for UW. And it’s a process that starts in the type of players the coaches go after on the recruiting trail.
“It would be the same as if you're the head of personnel and you're hiring,” Ryan said of what they look for. “If you're going to have scholarships being used, you want to make sure that the people that are using them are good students, going to take advantage of the opportunities that are given to them. You want people who have a vision of a better future, want to get better.”
Wanting to get better is a key. Coaches can see potential in a player but that recruit has to want to maximize that potential and that’s a big unknown. You can talk to people close to them, like a teacher or a coach, but you don’t know until they show up on campus if they are truly committed.
“It still boils down to the work ethic and the inner determination of that individual. I mean, Traevon Jackson, nobody works harder away from our practice then he does on his game,” Gard said as he saw the point guard come back out after practice on Monday to go through shooting drills. “I can go through the list of players we’ve had over the years that have been very high level players. What people don’t understand is how much time those guys put in on their own to make themselves better players. And they’ve all, in their own way, had to refine their skills. That’s the type of work ethic you have to have and hopefully it spreads to other guys. Just because you get here doesn’t guarantee anything. You’ve got to continue to improve from day one to your final game.”
Many of the likely one and done players they’ll face in Arlington, including forward Julius Randle, are more likely to head to a school that will get them best prepared for the NBA. When Gard and the other assistant coaches go looking for players they aren’t just concerned about the on the floor aspect.
“I think that’s the biggest thing that has been the strength of this program and we have to continue to remember who we are,” Gard said. “Socially, academically, the culture of this place, people that can survive and succeed academically, how we like to play. All those things come into play when you’re trying to evaluate somebody.”
The impact of Hayes and Koenig this year has been significant but they are also rare. Wisconsin will usually have a veteran lineup that grew up together within the program. Guys like Dekker and Gasser, who also both played in their first years, got on the floor because they were ready. But others, like Brust, Kaminsky and Jackson, had limited roles early in their time on campus and learned from those that came before them. For Kaminsky it was Jared Berggren, who learned from Jon Leuer, who learned from Butch and on down the line.
“They understand it’s for the bigger picture,” Gard said of the leadership. “For the good of the order, so to speak. That no individual is above the team and that helps that whole process. Not only do you look at this year, and everybody is putting a spotlight on this year, but this program has been so consistent and so successful because of that constant process and culture that’s been established. That really helps us maintain this at a high level. Obviously nothing is ever guaranteed but at least the pieces are in place to be able to give you a chance to sustain it.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin