ESPN had not yet signed off its telecast from Bloomington, Ind., when my iPhone pinged, pinged again, then again.
Bo Ryan’s Badgers had just stunned the national college basketball world by closing out the heavily favored Indiana Hoosiers, a team ranked second in the nation, before 17,472 raucous fans at Assembly Hall.
And, as I had been bearish on predictions for this year’s team and Ryan’s recent recruiting results, my friends were gigging me, apparently with great relish, in a series of text messages.
If the gist of these post-game, I-told-you-so messages had been set to music, the obvious choice would be “How You Like Me Now?”
Yes, more than any game I can recall, Tuesday’s shocking upset of Indiana repudiated those referred to in sports circles and on the message boards as the “Bo doubters.” Or, less subtly, as the “Bo haters.”
To the extent that I have expressed opinions that could put me on the fringes of any such group, I am here to offer my mea culpa. It may well be time to, um, sit down and shut up.
But let me explain.
I have attended 90-some percent of Wisconsin’s home basketball games as a season ticketholder during the 12-year Bo Ryan era, sitting square in the middle of a Kohl Center section occasionally targeted by students with the “stand up old people” taunts.
I have been there for each of the loudest Ryan-era moments: the Big Ten title-clinching win over Illinois on a last-second free throw by Devin Harris, the defeat of sixth-ranked Duke in the Big Ten-ACC challenge, the comeback victory over Ohio State, which at that time was undefeated and top-ranked, with the Badgers overcoming a late, double-digit deficit.
Such individual moments of Badger ecstasy have been buttressed by Ryan’s year-in, year-out record of top-half-of-the-conference finishes and inclusion in the NCAA tournament field.
Yet my friends legitimately indict me for at times having a glass-half-empty appreciation for Wisconsin’s feisty head coach.
The reason, lame as it may be, is generally familiar.
Ryan is brilliant at taking less-advertised recruits and “coaching them up,” as the cliché goes, into a disciplined and cohesive unit that wins well beyond what seems the ceiling of its individual talents.
That sounds good, but the frustration among some is that this does not seem to be a recipe for ever getting Wisconsin back to the Final Four, the pinnacle reached by former coach Dick Bennett, in 2000. Instead, the best Ryan’s teams have done is reach the round of eight in the NCAA tournament.
The red sweater crowd seems to think the 2004-05 Badgers could have reached the Final Four had Harris not chosen to depart a year early for the National Basketball Association, but top basketball programs regularly encounter that problem.
This frustration has sharpened a bit as Indiana and Michigan, two historical Big Ten powerhouses, fielded poor-to-mediocre teams in recent years but have now exploded back onto the national scene with top recruiting classes, something foreign to the UW program under Ryan.
Then there is this year, when the season-ending injury to guard Josh Gasser seemed to suggest this would be Ryan’s weakest team, and that fear was largely borne out with a blowout loss at Florida, a home-floor loss to Virginia and a listless performance in losing to arch-rival Marquette in Milwaukee.
Even the Badgers’ victories over Big Ten bottom feeders Penn State and Nebraska were struggles.
Then came Illinois. The 12th-ranked Illini arrived at the Kohl Center recently with a new coach and apparently renewed fan interest, judging by the heavy contingent of orange-clad fans who found their way in. But the Badgers started with a 14-0 lead and dominated throughout. Never have so many visiting fans had so little to cheer about.
I grew up in Illinois, and, not wanting to gloat, emailed a lifelong friend and Illini fan suggesting the game was “anomalous.” After the Indiana stunner, he emailed me ruefully asking at what point an anomaly becomes a trend.
Other unscientific indicators seemed to suggest the Bo Ryan era might be taking a turn for the mediocre before this past week.
The Kohl Center atmosphere had become less lively and the number of sold-but-unused seats had seemed to increase. Also, I have a pretty good feel for the StubHub ticket resale market, having friends in warm climates who leave me their tickets to sell. Until the past week, prices were lower and many did not sell at all.
Then, boom, young players such as Traevon Jackson and Sam Dekker take a quantum leap forward, the senior frontcourt of Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren performs with rock-steady toughness and veteran savvy. Heck, at Indiana, even lightly used center Frank Kaminsky hit two critical three-point shots before an eye poke by a Hoosier player ended his night.
As a veteran Bo Ryan watcher, you have to know he absolutely loves this, this path to proving us all wrong, to getting his team “on the left side” (that’s Bo-speak for winning) by rigidly following his “rules” (also Bo-speak, for adhering to his on-court directions.)
And he must have had a private smile at what the Big Ten Network called the “hurried handshake” with Indiana coach Tom Crean at the end of the game, one that showed a pretty clear lack of sportsmanship by Crean. BTN posted a video of it.
There appears to be bad blood between Ryan and the Hoosier coach dating to Crean’s days as Marquette’s coach. Moreover, the Badgers have owned the Hoosiers in recent years, beating Indiana 11 straight times, including five times at Assembly Hall, where Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal (staying with my blood metaphor) described the crowd as “bloodthirsty.”
There you have it: doubted by many at home, reviled on the road.
And proving everyone wrong.
Just the way Bo seems to like it best.