The NBA is a player’s game, a showcase for superstars.
In sharp contrast, college basketball is a team game, a coach’s game. With talent shuffling from year to year, the squads from Duke to Kansas to Oregon tend to project the personalities of their leaders.
That’s where Bo Ryan comes barging in. No quintet in America more closely mirrors its coach, who has shattered a millennium record for overachievement originally set by Kenyan distance runners.
Bo’s teams seldom receive the credit they deserve. Maybe it’s because the coach does it differently than his colleagues.
When Illinois invades Madison, Wis., on Wednesday night, John Groce’s own gang of high achievers will face a 15-0 Wisconsin team that — to nobody’s surprise — leads 351 college teams in fewest turnovers (8.5). As a trio, Badgers scoring leaders Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky and Ben Brust are averaging exactly one turnover apiece per game.
Like their predecessors, the 2014 Badgers are meticulous. They’re a deadly 39.6 percent on treys, engage in hand-to-hand combat on defense and protect the home court. Ryan doesn’t deal in one-and-dones and infrequently accepts transfers. Wisconsin fans take pride in their players as legitimate student-athletes and winners.
Solid every season
Fran McCaffery, Iowa’s coach who was frustrated Sunday to the point of an embarrassing double-T ejection, nutshelled the Badgers:
“They are true to themselves. They have five three-point shooters in the lineup and seven of eight overall. They really share, don’t make mistakes and don’t miss free throws late. They don’t beat themselves.”
“But they’re not as much fun,” you hear from those who aren’t among Kohl’s season ticket-holders.
“Folks outside Wisconsin don’t take them seriously because they’ve only reached the Elite Eight once in 12 years” is another refrain.
Yes, but if you care about conference play, this will probably be the 13th consecutive season that Ryan has placed a team in the Big Ten’s top four, beginning with his shared title in 2002 and the school’s first outright title in 56 years in 2003.
Those early runs should have prepared us to expect success in Wisconsin, and if that didn’t, how about the 61 wins and 29-5 conference record in 2007 and 2008?
No, we keep underestimating Bo and the Boys. And at the risk of engaging in racial comparisons, let’s try to put some widespread whispers into words.
Breaking it down
First, we recognized the obvious fact that the African-American community has made basketball a central, emotional aspect of its culture. Books are written about young inner-city jump-shooters viewing basketball as “their way out.”
While comprising 14 percent of college students (as of 2010), blacks make up more than 60 percent of the nation’s collegiate players — that percentage is higher among the top teams — and the NBA percentage has reached 80. Yes, four out of five NBA players are African-American.
My theory is that the Badgers are annually underrated because (1) they haven’t reached the Final Four during the Ryan era, (2) they are seldom mentioned in contention for five-star recruits and (3) since 2009, the breakdown of the top-five scorers on each Badgers team shows 10 black players out of 30.
Just as Kip Keino set expectations for Kenyans in marathons, fans have come to expect the best college teams to feature black stars ... and just one-third of Ryan’s 30 standouts during a six-year period are minorities.
Presently, junior guard Traevon Jackson, son of Ohio State great Jimmy Jackson, is the only African-American starter. The last Badgers team with a majority of minority starters was in 2008, when the trio of Michael Flowers, Marcus Landry and Trevon Hughes led a powerhouse team that also included Caucasians Brian Butch, Jason Bohannon, Joe Krabbenhoft, Greg Stiemsma and Jon Leuer.
Ryan has found a way of locating dead-eyes who fit his system, keeping them in school and developing them in a system that works year after year.
The Illini, with just four wins in the last 16 Badger engagements, will get another taste of it Wednesday night. The last three scores in Madison were 75-66, 70-56 and 74-51 ... the wrong way.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.