"Death, taxes and Bo Ryan." Search virtually anywhere in the sports corner of the Internet after a major Wisconsin basketball victory and you're sure to be flooded with the phrase. Ryan's consistency has been so overwhelming during his 14-year stint as the Badgers' front man that it has become a meme.
Wisconsin hasn't missed the NCAA Tournament under Ryan's guidance, and has been a No. 5 seed or better in nine of those 14 seasons, including each of the last six. The Badgers have reached the second weekend of the Big Dance seven times during Ryan's tenure, giving him more trips to the Sweet 16 over that span than any coach not named Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, John Calipari or Bill Self. And as far as the Big Ten goes, no team in the league has more overall or conference wins than Wisconsin's 357 and 172, respectively, during the Ryan era.
What Ryan has been able to accomplish in Madison would warrant cries for Hall of Fame induction (he was a finalist this past year) regardless of the fine details, but it's been the way Ryan has won which has come to define both he and Wisconsin as much as anything else.
Including 2015, Ryan has gone through 14 recruiting cycles while acting as Wisconsin's head coach. During that span, the Badgers have produced precisely zero classes that have landed in the top 25 of any of the major scouting networks. Player development, the seldom-practiced art of redshirting -- Ryan had six former redshirts on his national runner-up team a season ago and will have seven in his final campaign -- and a full belief in the UW system have allowed the Badgers to co-exist among the nation's elite during the one-and-done era.
Now, after a somewhat bizarre offseason in which Ryan teetered back-and-forth between whether or not 2015-16 would be his last season before retirement, the captain of consistency faces one of the toughest follow-up acts of his career.
Wisconsin is coming off the best season in program history: 36 wins, a dual Big Ten championship and a national runner-up finish. Five of the top seven performers from that team are gone, including a pair of top-20 draft picks in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. The margin for error is going to be much slimmer for the Badgers this season than it has over the past two, but that's the type of pressure that Ryan and his players typically thrive under.
For the bulk of last season, Nigel Hayes was Wisconsin's second-best player. That being the case, it almost feels wrong to say that he "needs to become a star," so I guess we'll just say that he needs to become an even bigger star.
Hayes finished his sophomore season at UW ranked third on the team in scoring (12.4 ppg) and second in rebounds (6.2 rpg), he also led the Badgers in steals (34) and was a third team All-Big Ten selection at the end of the year. He figures to be one of the league's most skilled post players in 2015-16, but he'll have to step up his production in an offense that will no longer have Kaminsky and Dekker drawing the opposition's best defenders.
Koenig, a fellow junior, was thrust into a larger role than most expected last season when starting point guard Traevon Jackson fractured his right foot in January. Koenig responded when he was given the keys to the Bo Ryan offense, averaging fewer than one turnover per game, connecting on 41.1 percent of his 3-point attempts, and helping guide the Badgers to their first national championship game appearance since 1941. Now, suddenly, he's the third-oldest player on a team without a scholarship senior, and he's walking into a season where he knows he's going to be relied on for added production and leadership.
On a team with almost as many true freshmen (four) as upperclassmen (five), Hayes and Koenig are going to be the guys tasked with not just stepping into starring roles on the court, but with passing down the recent culture that has resulted in back-to-back Final Four trips for Wisconsin. If they can handle that, then the Badgers could wind up right back in the mix for another Big Ten championship and a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament.
If there is one poster child for the Bo Ryan way, it's Frank Kaminsky. The big man arrived in Madison as an unheralded project and looked the part for his first two seasons, averaging just 9.0 minutes per game. He had scored in double figures just five times in 74 career games before exploding onto the national scene in December of his junior year when he dropped a school-record 43 points in a game against North Dakota. A year and a half later, Kaminsky is a top-10 NBA Draft pick who's headed to the league with every major 2015 national Player of the Year award tucked under his goofy arms.
While Kaminsky's development is and will remain arguably the most recognizable success story of Ryan's coaching career, it's still something of an outlier. Wisconsin has produced just two first-round NBA Draft picks since the turn of the century, half of those coming earlier this year. Basically, Ryan has never needed future millionaires to be successful. The flip side of that is that he's rarely had to adjust to a life that is suddenly missing multiple players who were obvious future millionaires.
Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan combined to play 9,896 minutes over the past two seasons, and accounted for 66 percent of the scoring and 61 percent of the rebounding on last season's national runner-up squad. The biggest blow from the departures comes inside, where Ryan finds himself without a proven post presence for the first time in what feels like an eternity.
The man who would seem to get the first shot at taking over Kaminsky's role inside would be junior Vitto Brown, a career backup who arrived at Wisconsin at the imperfect time to earn a starter's job in the middle. He's shown enough flashes over the past two seasons to make some folks in Madison believe he has the potential to be the next Big Frank ... or at least a close enough version for the Badgers to maintain their current run of success. Brown will likely be joined in the post by redshirt freshman Ethan Happ, a versatile forward who would have played big minutes as a true frosh at most programs last season.
Out of the newcomers, four-star guard Brevin Pritzl is probably the most intriguing. He had ankle surgery in July which may limit the impact he'll make in the first half of the season, especially since the UW coaching staff views him as their future in the backcourt. Like Happ, forwards Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas will have an opportunity to prove they can play a large role right away in bolstering the Badger frontcourt.
Wisconsin might be the program least known for relying on young talent, but if none of these youngsters step up and play above their experience (especially inside), then it's hard to envision the Badgers being the same force they've been these past two seasons.