You know what, I’ve read a lot about baseball lately, I’d like to read something about basketball. Hey, Bill Simmons, he knows a lot about basketball and runs Grantland, I’ll bet I can find something good over there, maybe even on the Badgers:

Surviving Bo Ryan’s War on Wisconsin Basketball, and Loving the Badgers Just the Same

Oh. Uh oh. This looks like it has potential to be the worst thing ever written about college basketball on a major website. But what are the odds of that? Probably low. Let’s check it out and see what Brett Koremenos has to say . He’s in bold. I am not.

I am from Wisconsin,

Hey, me too!

a fact I was reminded of, over and over again, on Facebook this past weekend.

I like being from Wisconsin. And I can also log off of Facebook whenever I want.

I couldn’t look at the site without friends and family constantly sharing their feelings about the UW-Madison Badgers, their Elite Eight victory over Arizona, and their trip to the Final Four.

“I, a person from Wisconsin, could not participate on Facebook, a social media site in which friends and families share their thoughts and feelings, without my friends from Wisconsin sharing their feelings about the college team from Wisconsin’s run to the Final Four.” So put upon.

I live in Phoenix now, and have a small Wisconsin contingent. I had no real plans to watch the Badgers-Wildcats game. I decided to join up with friends at a bar in Tempe only at the last minute.

I know, not everyone is into basketball, and if you don’t really have a horse in the race there are other things you could be watching. I mean, if you were, hypothetically speaking a high school basketball coach I would imagine you would be interested in the NCAA tournament regardless as you would have decided to make basketball your profession, but not everyone is into the game at that level.  I get that.

I wanted to cheer against my buddy Brian.

Oh, so you’re kind of a dick.

The two of us have known one another since we were kids, and our friendship has always revolved around finding the best way to annoy one another.

I don’t really have a problem with this and I think we all know friends like this, however if someone had been giving me grief during the Arizona game I would have strangled them with my Ron Dayne commemorative towel I got at the Iowa game in 1999 when he set the rushing record.

Usually, our attempts to rile each other up don’t involve sports. Growing up together, we were both fans of Wisconsin-based teams. That used to include the Badgers. But as I’ve journeyed down the basketball rabbit hole throughout my career, objectivity has replaced fandom.

Brett Koremenos is about to tell you objective things about basketball. Are you ready?

The only emotional connections I have to teams these days are with the high school ones I coach.

Oh. So you’re a high school basketball coach who was not going to watch the biggest, most popular basketball tournament in the world…

Perhaps that’s why I spent the morning of the game guiltlessly harassing my buddy (and his poor wife, who is also a Badger fan). I even goaded both of them into betting on the game. For me, it seemed like the only way I could develop a sincere rooting interest.

So…you lost money. Nice goading.

In all my years of being around basketball, I’ve never known a team quite as well as the 1999-2000 Badgers.

I’m class of 2000. Man, those were the days…

From Charlie Wills’s wide-stance jumper to Maurice Linton’s grab bag of hanging, off-balance leaners*, to the fact that Duany Duany’s name was Duany Duany, I knew every idiosyncrasy.

How about some love for Andy Kowske?

How about some love for Andy Kowske?

High school basketball coach, lifelong basketball fan doesn’t want to watch the Elite Eight games of the NCAA tourney, doesn’t mention the defense when reminiscing about the 1999-2000 Wisconsin Badgers.

Sounds like an expert.

*Maurice Linton averaged 4.5 points and 1.7 makes per game. That s one disappointing grab bag. 

I used to pore over box scores and plan my life around each game.

Most of the time if someone is poring over box scores they’re doing it for an entire league. Poring over box scores for one college basketball team takes like 5 minutes. Maybe longer if you’re using KenPom or something, but I’m pretty sure he’s not.

I can still hear in my head the way longtime Badger play-by-play man Matt Lepay used to excitedly draw out the first name of reserve guard Travon Davis after a big play.

I’m such a big fan of the team that I planned my life around them to…listen to them…on the radio.

The biggest reason I was drawn to this team was a guy named Mike Kelley.

One of my earliest sports memories was watching Kelley play in high school (he went to Pius XI, which is near where I grew up); I attended with my older brother, who was getting his undergrad at the University of Wisconsin. I was 12, so I was a little young to be considered a scout; I just knew my brother was a big Badgers fan and he was excited about this kid, so I probably should be, too.

I don’t have a problem with this. It was super fun to watch Mike Kelley play defense and few have played man-to-man as well. Kelley was a terrible shooter and he knew it, which often worked to his advantage by allowing him to focus on defense. He’d get a transition bucket or free throw now and then, but that was about it.

I don’t remember much about that game other than this scrappy 6-foot-3 kid making the opposing team miserable with his tenacious play.

Aaron Craft draws a charge from Gob.

Aaron Craft draws a charge from Gob.

Mike Kelley invented Aaron Craft that night.

As we all know, Aaron Craft was bestowed upon the world by Seodipus*, the Greek God of taking charges, in a ceremony at Delphi where rams and other horned animals repeatedly ran directly into him and a young Dick Vitale yelled at the top of his lungs about how unselfish the act was.

Seriously, the “small guard who plays scrappy defense and takes charges” has been around since James Naismith hung up a peach basket. That’s why there were only 4 points scored in those games. The only difference with Craft was the absolutely fellatio-level fawning-over he received from the media. The media’s coverage of Mike Kelley and that Badger team was mainly “This is boring, BORING, stop being so boring!”. Good times.

*”Oedipus”, who would kill his father and marry/sleep with his mother in the famous plays of Sophocles, literally means “swollen foot”. Because of the prophecy about how things would end up his parents pierced and bound his feet and left him exposed on a hillside. When he was rescued and taken in his feet were swollen which is how he got his name. I don’t know Greek but I assume Seodipus means “set feet” because why not?

That performance was only a precursor to what a big deal he was about to become. During his junior season at Wisconsin, he won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award. Game in, game out, Kelley dismantled the opposing team’s top scorer, leading the Badgers to a Final Four appearance. Kelley blanketed, pestered, and outworked his marks until they hovered on the brink of emotional collapse.

Mike Kelley was a very good defensive player but let’s not go crazy. Andy Kowske and Mark Vershaw were every bit as important and Jon Bryant accidentally became the face of the Final Four team during their run with some great 3-point shooting. A whole bunch of guys contributed to that team and many were more important than Kelley.

During Wisconsin’s improbable tournament run, he also bested a string of future pros. Courtney Alexander from Fresno State got completely shut down; Gilbert Arenas (!!!) from Arizona didn’t fare much better in the round of 32. LSU’s Stromile Swift and Purdue’s Jaraan Cornell (OK, so he was never a pro, but still) also felt his wrath.

Please keep in mind that this entire portion is raving about defense, and for good reason. Defense was always the hallmark of any Dick Bennett team, and his offenses mainly worked in service to his defenses. Please also keep in mind that Stromile Swift was a 6’10” power forward and wasn’t guarded by Mike Kelley. That LSU team featured the twin towers of Swift and Jabari Smith, and the Badger front court did some of their best work against them. A little love for Kowske and Vershaw, maybe?

Also please keep in mind that in the Final Four game in 2000 against Michigan State * the Badgers scored 41 points. In the 2014 Final Four game Bo’s Badgers had 40 at half time.

*If you scroll down a bit on the replies to that linked tweet by Andy Glockner you will find the official University of Wisconsin twitter account agreeing with him, which is amazing. And self-aware. Sifting and winnowing indeed. 

I’ll never forget a shell-shocked Swift looking like he didn’t want to be on the court by the end of the game.

That was a fun one.

After all that, my now-15-year-old self had every reason to believe Kelley was destined to end up as the starting point guard for my hometown Milwaukee Bucks. I was certain that every Badger on that team — particularly Kelley, Linton, and sweet-shooting guard Jon Bryant — was on his way to the NBA. If someone told me then that I’d eventually reach a point in my life where I’d playfully cheer against the Badgers in a huge NCAA tournament game, I would not have believed them. Mike Kelley and the rest of that team indoctrinated me into Wisconsin basketball fandom for life.

Or so I thought.

I will not rip some kid remembering his 15-year-old self. It’s nuts to think those players had pro potential but people thought a lot of things in the pre/early internet era. We didn’t have snarky bloggers to tell you when you were wrong. In any case, we’re about to get crazy. Ready for the crazy? Here comes the crazy. Remember, we were just talking about the defensively-focused Dick Bennett Badgers.

There are two reasons for the demise of my Badger fandom: Bo Ryan and Wisconsin high school basketball .

A 14-year sustained run of excellence killed your fandom. OK then.

When I started coaching Wisconsin high school ball back in the late ’00s, Ryan’s trademark “swing” offense had infiltrated girls’ and boys’ programs across the state.

It should be noted that this actually started much earlier when Ryan was running his juggernaut at Platteville in the 90s and would give an audience with any high school coach who wanted to talk to him. It precedes his time with the Badgers by a significant amount.

It seemed like every team outside of Milwaukee ran some version of the offense. Because of his success, Ryan was revered by high school coaches across the state. So it didn’t bother anyone that the offense sucked the life out of games, all over the state, just like it did in Madison.

We should say a quick word about Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan, because in many ways Wisconsin basketball and Bo Ryan have had their reputation tarnished by Dick Bennett. This is not to say that Dick Bennett was a bad coach or somehow wrong about how he went about things. There is a Final Four banner in the rafters because of him. The fact is that Dick Bennett was a defense-first coach who looked to limit the number of possessions in a game, and because of that ran a very very very slow offense. He did this at Green Bay and he did this at Wisconsin.

Bo Ryan is not that coach, but a lot of people seem to think nothing changed when Bennett left. You’ll note first and foremost that Bo Ryan is know for an offense, the “Swing Offense.”  Yes, Ryan teams try to limit turnovers (duh) and play tough defense because all teams try to do that, but Ryan is first and foremost an offensive mind, and while the typical Ryan team will never lead college basketball in possessions per game, the slowness of their style of play has been hugely overstated. The Swing can work in a lot of ways based on the personnel you have, and the hallmark of a Ryan team is a hyper-efficient offense, not a lock-down defense, though he occasionally has both.

Basketball is being played faster and more aggressively than ever before,

This is simply not true. Since coaches have all learned the importance of points per possession and efficiency over volume, basketball has never been slower. Take a look at the points per game and possessions per game charts here . Possessions are crucial and coaches are focusing more on getting the most out of them.  Bo Ryan was, if anything, a revolutionary.

Yet here is Ryan gaming the system with his über-conservative approach. Go slow, don’t turn the ball over, play defense. Ryan champions smashmouth in the era of the spread. It leads to wins, but basketball doesn’t get more unappealing than that.

Sam Dekker, doing something very boring.

Sam Dekker, doing something very boring.

There is literally nothing about the Badger offense that could be considered “gaming the system” and it’s hard to imagine a better offense to learn in. In the Swing everyone has to be an effective outside shooter and most players will post up at some point. It teaches passing with purpose, the relative value of a 3-pointer vs. a long 2, the benefits of getting shots in the paint, and of moving from the strong side to the weak side when things are not available. In the Swing offense every player basically needs to have every fundamental basketball skill, and in high school that is precisely what you want players to practice.

And of course basketball does in fact get more unappealing than that. I would argue Kentucky, with their slash-and-get-fouled offense is far more unappealing. But the one thing I think we can all agree on is that Bo Ryan’s offense is thousands of times more appealing than Dick Bennett’s offense. At least for everyone other than Brett Koremenos.

In the winter of 2012, I signed up to be an assistant for a boys’ program in the southeastern part of the state. I wanted to play fast, spread the floor, run lots of pick-and-rolls, and play with a purpose on offense. I liked to think of myself as this brash, young assistant trying to bring the NBA to high school basketball. This is easier said than done, espeically when, because of Ryan’s influence, I was constantly coaching in games straight out of Hoosiers.

So you were an assistant who showed up and told the person in charge that you wanted to have high-schoolers out running up and down the floor like NBA players, and you describe yourself as brash? I’ll bet that coach had never before had anyone who wanted to bring the NBA game to high school. Can’t believe you hit resistance.

I resented the team I used to love. Everything about the way the Badgers won — the kowtowing to bland seniority in the face of bold young talent, the unrelenting defense,

According to KenPom the Badgers were 49th this season in adjusted defense (97.6). They were 4th in adjusted offense (120.8). So yeah. Really unrelenting.

They were not fast with 63.9 possessions per game, but that’s barely slower than UCONN, at 64.6.

and, of course, the long possessions filled with pointless passing that stalled the game 

If ever you wanted to prove to a basketball coach that you didn’t know what you were talking about, I think muttering the phrase “pointless passing” would be the quickest most efficient way. Almost all of the passing in the swing offense serves a specific purpose, either to create space, create a favorable post up matchup and entry location, or to switch the floor and force the defense to rotate. If you don’t understand the point of passing in an offense then you have no business working with high school kids or writing for a basketball-focused website.

drove me crazy. Ryan’s teams represented everything I believed to be fundamentally evil about old-school basketball. I didn’t necessarily want to see the Badgers lose. I just didn’t want their style of play to be rewarded with wins.

You sir, are a terrible fan.

As the second half wore on in that Arizona game, my apathy began to fade with it. As time wound down in regulation, despite the meager financial reward in it for me if the Badgers failed, it dawned on me that, while I wasn’t living and dying with every play like my friends, I definitely had some emotions invested in this outcome. I didn’t feel compelled to unleash an emotional outburst like I did 14 years ago, when Kelley would jump a passing lane for a steal leading to an easy layup*,  

*just a quick aside. I love Mike Kelley too, but he didn’t have “easy layup” in his arsenal.

but each big shot down the stretch brought with it a mental fist-pump. On the last possession of the game, like every other Badger fan, I began to wonder if the overturned call would lead to an agonizing last-second defeat. When Arizona’s Nick Johnson failed to get his shot off before the final buzzer, my friends at the bar exploded with excitement, high-fiving and hugging before demanding the bar play “Jump Around” by House of Pain. I didn’t join in, other than giving Brian and his wife dap for winning the bet. I mostly just sat back and watched the Badgers celebrate on TV.

Why do you even watch sports?

Ryan soon came on for an emotional interview. After it was over, he faded into the swarm of happy figures behind him, only to reemerge, as his team began to cut down the net, with a flat-billed baseball cap awkwardly sitting atop his head. I felt a small rush of pride come over me as I watched the man who had unknowingly become my nemesis climb the ladder and snare his prize.

Bo Ryan is not your nemesis. Bo Ryan does not know or care who you are. Bo Ryan coaches a high-level division 1 basketball program that just made the Final Four. You want 16-year-olds screaming up and down the court and shooting immediately, and now live in Arizona for some reason.

I guess nothing can kill fandom. Not even Bo Ryan .

If you like Dick Bennett’s offense but feel bored by Bo Ryan’s offense and try to run Mike D’Antoni’s offense with high school kids, you are a crazy person.

*A special thank you to @akschaaf for serving as college basketball consultant on this and helping with stats about pace, efficiency, Maurice Linton, among others. 

 

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