The conversation took me back more than 10 years, to the Spring of 2000. Listening to Madison sports talk on the way home from work on Friday the question was being debated: Does Wisconsin Basketball Coach Bo Ryan need to take a team to the Final Four in order to validate his career? I found the question jarring, but having heard similar talk about Dick Bennett 11 years ago, I chuckled this time instead of being irked like I was a decade ago.
Back in those days, fans were complaining about the Badgers style of play under Bennett, that is was solid and all, but not much fun to watch and probably not going to result in much major success for UW. Of course, famously, Wisconsin made the NCAA Tournament as an eight seed a few weeks later and drove all way to the Final Four.
Right on cue, just as some are questioning Bo Ryan, his Badgers take down top ranked Ohio State on Saturday at the Kohl Center, the first time UW has managed to beat a Number One since 1962. Even before this stunner, I believe Bo’s record at Wisconsin (and at UW-Platteville and UW-Milwaukee) speaks for itself; he needed no validation, least of all from me. The guy is one of the game’s best coaches, with several Big Ten titles and an uninterrupted string of NCAA Tournament berths since coming to Madison. But if this win over the OSU doesn’t clarify that in the minds of basketball observers in this city — or anywhere else for that matter — then they just don’t want to face facts and accept the truth.
And on the subject of truth, I will confess: I was among those who cashiered this team in December. I watched a number of early season games and came away totally unimpressed. With the Big Ten seemingly loaded with a half dozen very good teams, it looked like a down year for Bucky to me. I was hoping they might win seven conference games and go deep enough in the post-season tourney to sneak in to The Dance as a low seed. More likely, I thought this was an NIT team.
But somehow, as he always seems to do, Ryan has his team in contention for the conference title and on the cusp of 20 wins. Now, I don’t think they will win the Big Ten, especially with some very tough road games upcoming. But what Bo has done with the collection of players he has, a group that outside of Jon Leuer and the terrific Jordan Taylor is pretty much unproven and/or nondescript, is nothing short of outstanding. Ryan should be beyond questions of the sort being tossed around the airwaves on Friday. The proof was on the floor of the Kohl Center Saturday afternoon.