USA TODAY US Edition
At Wisconsin, Bo knows ‘D’
Ryan’s Badgers can be dangerous — and overlooked
NEW ORLEANS — Wisconsin big man Keaton Nankivil sports a pretty nasty black left eye suffered last weekend en route to today’s Sweet 16 game against Butler. “It gives people something to talk about,” shrugged Nankivil on Wednesday. Perfect. It’s only logical that the nofrills Badgers’ symbol would be a black eye. Wisconsin, after all, almost seems like an afterthought in the Southeast Regional. But the Badgers aren’t in the Big Easy for attention.
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan noted his team had been to Tucson and New Orleans in the first two weeks of the NCAA tournament. Those are nice, warm spots.
“I’ve got a great view of the Mississippi,” he said. “Watching the tugboats and the freighters and the riverboats go up and down (the river). And in Tucson we had a great view of the cacti and mountains and the desert. So our guys have had a nice couple of trips. We’d like to have more after this.”
The last stop would be Houston, for the Final Four. Two wins away. For sure, Butler coach Brad Stevens isn’t taking the blackeyed Badgers for granted.
“I could sit up here and flatter them all day,” Stevens said. “I’ll tell you what, why wouldn’t you want to play a way where everybody is completely unselfish, where, if they have a good shot, they try to find a better shot for their team, where guys are diving on the floor, where guys take charges, where guys are physically and mentally tough?
“There’s a reason they don’t lose very often, and there’s a reason why they have had what probably is one of the most under-discussed and more remarkable runs in the last 10 years in college basketball.”
But Wisconsin (25-8) isn’t the team that catches the imagination of the sports media. The Badgers lead the Big Ten in defense (58.5, fourth in NCAA Division I) and are eighth in offense (68.4). That’s the Ryan way — and has been for a 10-year span of 242 wins and 90 losses.
“They are one of the hardest teams to guard in the country and one of the hardest teams to score on in the country,” Stevens said. “And that’s usually a pretty good combination.”
Jordan Taylor has been the heart and soul of the team, which knocked off Ohio State during the season but wasn’t counted on to be contending for a Final Four berth.
Stevens said Taylor made Wisconsin a national title contender.
“His ability to get to the paint, his ability to draw two guys, he’s got a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio,” Stevens gushed. “If you don’t respect him off a ball screen, you’re dead. He shoots 44% from three, and he probably shoots 60% off the dribble from three. . . .
“We’ve played against the best this year, Kyrie Irvings of the world and people like that, Norris Cole at Cleveland State, and this guy is right up there.”
But Taylor’s 18-point average is matched by forward Jon Leuer (18.7). It’s a team of balance and black eyes.
Adds Butler’s Shawn Vanzant, “It’s going to be a team effort to guard them.”
Taylor only smiles at the com- pliments. A junior now, Ryan recalls recruiting him.
“There’s an old expression, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and my grandparents had used it,” Ryan said.
“Jordan Taylor was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on his visits to Wisconsin. . . . He just blew everybody away on campus (during a visit), everybody that he met. I did not have one person that met him that did not come to me and say, ‘We’ve got to have that young man here.’ ”
With its front line, a strong supporting cast and Taylor running things with Ryan’s workethic demands, Wisconsin isn’t the prettiest team in the tournament. But in the Sweet 16 for the fifth time since 2000 and making its 13th consecutive tournament appearance — fourth among active streaks — it is one of the most successful.
“We’re not really paying attention to what people are saying,” Taylor said. “You know, we feel like our brand of basketball works; it’s accomplished.”
And Ryan imagines what a great time he could have in Houston next week.
“There’s 16 of us left,” he said. “We’ll see what four end up there. Obviously, that’s what everybody is trying to do. It would be nice to get there.”