Bo Ryan has a face that's easy to hate. There are few fans of his histrionics, but it's that needling grin, impish and wide, that pricks opponents. It's Joker-esque when the rest of the world is Batman. His plodding, efficient swing offense the joke that drives everyone else as crazy as himself. Brian Cook at MGoBlog once wrote that "to watch the Badgers is to both hate and become Bo Ryan." That's probably accurate unless, of course, you're in on the joke too.
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Ryan's comeuppance was the NCAA Tournament. The refrain went: Wisconsin's clutch-and-grab defense wouldn't work outside of the Big Ten, where the Badgers took advantage of lenient officiating to bridge the gulf-wide talent divide between them and the real basketball aristocracy. Ryan gamed the system, and the fact that he had 12 straight NCAA Tournament appearances with just one Elite Eight berth -- that Wisconsin had developed a nasty habit of losing to upstart, lower-seeded teams -- was proof Ryan-ball didn't work. It was a gimmick.
2014 could have been more of the same, if not worse. Three seniors left the frontcourt, and a headstrong backcourt, bolstered by the return of junior Josh Gasser from injury, wasn't a fix-all salve. The NCAA's mandate to officials to rein in hand-checking and reinterpret blocking fouls targeted programs with physical reputations like Wisconsin. Unsurprisingly, Wisconsin's interior defense struggled, a problem that came to a head in the Badgers' first game against Indiana. The Hoosiers scored 52 of their 75 points in the paint, and grabbed an offensive rebound on 11 of their 30 misses. Wisconsin shot 53.3 percent from the field and still lost by two to a team that finished the season 17-15.
On the other hand, Wisconsin's offense leading up to that game had been, well, palatable. More than that, it was lighting up the scoreboard in unprecedented fashion. Five different players had led the team in scoring five separate times through the first seven games of the season, and Wisconsin became a threat to post triple-digit efforts, as it did against North Dakota during Frank Kaminsky's record 43-point performance. No player could be designated "The Man." Gone were the days of pleading for Alando Tucker or Jordan Taylor to do something, anything, when the shot clock inevitably dwindled below five seconds. Wisconsin's was deep and versatile.
The Badgers started the season 16-0. They were ranked No. 3 in both polls and No. 2 by KenPom before running into the Hoosiers. It was clear by that point that this team was different.
Yet the refrain continued, loudest through the 1-5 stretch that followed the school-record win streak, but present even during Wisconsin's NCAA Tournament run. They weren't athletic enough to go shot for shot with a fast-paced Oregon squad. Maybe they had an answer for Baylor's zone but an ultra-lengthy, athletic and efficient offense (still 10th-best by KenPom) should have given the Badgers fits. Arizona was a monster on defense and the defensive boards that would go on to give up 1.04 points per possession -- its fifth-worst outing of the season -- and allow Wisconsin to regain possession of 35 percent of its missed shots.
That last bit of handiwork by Wisconsin's front line was perhaps the most spectacular feat of the Badgers' tournament run. Seven of those offensive rebounds were absorbed by Kaminsky, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the West Regional after posting 28 points and 11 total rebounds with future NBA'ers Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon handling primary defensive responsibilities.
The same Kaminsky who scored 43 points in a game last November and has become a darling of the tournament scored only 4.2 points in 10.3 minutes per game last season. He has sleepy, droopy eyes and his nickname is "Fupps" (pronounced foops). It's short for FUPA Face. Wisconsin's star center is nicknamed FUPA Face. DO NOT GOOGLE FUPA FACE.
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Kaminsky is emblematic of the team: awkward, unassuming and killer on the court. He fits in neatly with Ryan's proud tradition of developing versatile, goofy-looking big men, and Kaminsky is arguably the best of them, certainly in the paint where he displays a combination of guile and practiced footwork unmatched by Badgers past. It seems unfair that he is also a 37.8 percent three-point shooter this season.
Charles Barkley spent the Arizona game howling Kaminsky's name and admitted after that the Badgers were "better than I thought they were." That Wisconsin's performance came as a shock is another indication that the team's reputation precedes itself. Look again, and you'll see athleticism. A sharp-shooting backcourt of Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson and Gasser has been uncommonly good at crashing the boards. Kaminsky's frontcourt mate Sam Dekker was touted as a lottery pick before a mild sophomore slump. True freshman Nigel Hayes has been deadly proficient in the mid-range. They're all playing as well together as they have all season, and yes, that includes a marked improvement defending the paint.
Enter Kentucky, Wisconsin's perfect foil. Another team easily characterized, and perhaps unfairly. Yes, the Wildcats look like a team of one-and-done Monstars, but they may not be the evil you want them to be. They aren't looking ahead to a potential national championship bout against Florida or their future NBA careers, more likely they're focused on the Wisconsin team they will have spent a week preparing for. You know, the one that looks great on film.
This game fits an easy narrative -- Kentucky is young, supremely talented and mercurial; Wisconsin is experienced, savvy and slow. One ought to be the other's kryptonite, except both teams have crawled out of their respective pigeon holes during their NCAA Tournament runs. Kentucky got wins over mature Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan squads, while Wisconsin triumphed over Oregon, Baylor and Arizona rosters rife with pro prospects.
Kentucky has the physical advantage at every position except one, that's fair to say. The easy narrative isn't wrong, but it undermines what both teams have done. Kentucky jelled at exactly the right time. Wisconsin out-hustled, out-finessed and out-muscled every team it faced. Both are damn good teams about to play a damn good game, and somehow that obvious point needs emphasis.
Las Vegas likes the Wildcats to win by two. KenPom says Badgers by one. Let's call it a coin flip with heavy consequences for Wisconsin. A loss cues the refrain -- the columns that would be written have been written before. A win would give Wisconsin its first title game appearance since 1941, solidifying this team as perhaps the best in school history, and give this tournament another lasting image: Bo Ryan, in celebration, flashing a needling grin.