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Friday, March 30, 2007

How Good Is Bo Ryan?

On Thursday, Bo Ryan became the fourth annual recipient of the Adolph Rupp Cup award for the men's basketball coach of the year. Even though Wisconsin had a great season, Bo had not been mentioned much as a national award candidate. Thad Matta took home the hardware in the Big Ten and Tony Bennett was named Coach of the Year by the Associated Press.

Despite finishing the season 4-4, Wisconsin won 30 games, surpassing the old mark of 25 wins (set and matched in Bo's second and third seasons). The school earned its first-ever No. 1 ranking in February and boasted the nation's third-longest winning streak this season. The Badgers proceeded to make a ninth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, receiving the highest seeding in team history.

The Rupp Cup voters did not hold the late-season slide against the coach and they were right in doing so. UW lost arguably its second-best player for the second half of a two-point loss on the road against the top-ranked team in the country. With Brian Butch done for the season, the fall from grace was not surprising. During the winning streak, I was demanding a Final Four run. "Nothing less should be expected," I thought. By the end of the Big Ten Tournament, I admitted that making the Elite Eight would constitute a successful season. As it turned out, making the Sweet Sixteen would have elated me.

We tend to romanticize the ability of our team's players when all is well and conversely, go overboard negatively when the season bogs down. The only constant is the coaching. I think it's fair to say that the only Badger we know will play in the NBA is Alando Tucker. Based on size alone, Butch and Greg Stiemsma may wind up getting a look next year, but that is contingent on showing a lot of improvement as seniors. Landry? Hughes? Nothing more than potential right now.

This is what Bo has to work with. The coaching record speaks for itself. His 500th career victory came this season at the South Padre Island Invitational versus Auburn.

Along with Tom Izzo, Bo seemingly stands as the very best of the Big Ten's head coaches. That elite class has swelled with the influx of two recent heavyweight transfers, Kelvin Sampson and Tubby Smith. Like Bo, Thad Matta came in with a proven track record at other programs, experiencing immediate success and Big Ten titles. Those five coaches have Hall of Fame potential. However, Bo is the only one from this group who has not been to a Final Four. Hmmm ...

On the other hand, Bruce Weber built the Southern Illinois program into a mid-major power before winning two Big Ten titles and reaching the NCAA Championship Game with the Fightin' Illini. Yet he is knocked down to the middleweight division because of lackluster recruiting skills. There he joins Purdue's Matt Painter, the conference's lone "whiz kid." Painter took over at Southern Illinois after assisting Weber there for five seasons. He finished his training as associate head coach under Gene Keady at Purdue, where Weber was an assistant for nearly 20 years. Coming into the season, Purdue was my sleeper team in the conference and I think Painter's boys validated my thoughts by the end of the year. He's got potential as a coach and a very good incoming crop of freshman this fall.

The final two classes of Big Ten coaches include the "small-time coaches in over their heads at terrible programs" club (Bill Carmody at Northwestern, Ed DeChellis at Penn State) and the "vacancies at sleeping giants" club (Iowa and Michigan). The "former players who can't get it done" club is empty with the recent departures of Steve Alford and Tommy Amaker.

There's reason to believe Bo will take this program to even higher heights. His only "off year" in 2005-06 can be attributed to two crippling academic suspensions. UW continues to gain previously unthinkable media attention since he's arrived. But the Final Four is calling. Bo is principled, but needs to be willing to tweak his famous swing offense to suit the high-level players his staff can now reach.

As an aside, I think the Badgers still have not recovered from losing Rob Jeter two season ago. Sure, the team still has two top-notch assistants in Gary Close and Greg Gard. But imagine having three great assistants. As Jeter begins beating out bigger schools for recruits at UW-Milwaukee, Howard Moore is still feeling his way into the role of the replacement. Moore has cultivated his Chicago background into a recruiting tool for the traditionally fertile area before, but may still be adjusted to attracting the top-level talent that success in the Big Ten requires. Both recent recruits out of Illinois--signed before Moore returned to Madison--have now transferred. Tucker was a smashing success waaaaaa-y back in 2002, but neither Mickey Perry (Chicago) nor DeAaron Williams (Peoria) contributed.

Tasty links:
- Kirk Penney is enjoying Euro-league basketball.
- Keaton Nankovil has big plans (see #12).

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