BOSTON -- Contrary to how it may have sounded, it wasn’t “Rip On Ryan Evans Day” Wednesday afternoon at TD Garden.
Greg Gard, the associate head coach for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, was actually dishing out a compliment when he had this to say about junior forward Ryan Evans:
“He’s persistently stubborn at times,” Gard said.
Not only did Evans agree with that description, he took it one step further.
“It’s stubbornness (and) arrogance,” he said.
Some context is necessary before any judgments are made about Evans, a key element of the Badgers’ surge in the NCAA tournament.
The fourth-seeded Badgers (26-9) wouldn’t be where they are — facing top-seeded Syracuse (33-2) Thursday night in a Sweet 16 game of the NCAA tournament’s East regional — without Evans, the poster boy for how much a player can improve in coach Bo Ryan’s system.
When Gard says “persistently stubborn,” he means dogged and persevering, not obstinate.
“He’s been told he can’t do something … in the past,” Gard said, “and I think it made him even more resilient to work hard in order to be able to play.”
When Evans says “arrogance,” he means proud, not conceited.
“I just feel like I’m somebody that can be successful,” Evans said. “I think I’ve worked for it.”
Long journey started at 15
This is where Evans was seven years ago: A skinny, 15-year-old guard without a team because he was cut from his junior varsity squad in the Phoenix area.
This is where he was three years later: An 18-year-old who had found a new high school team, become a first-team all-state player in Arizona and attracted the interest of Ryan and his staff.
Still, Evans had a long ways to go when Ryan and Co. decided to take a shot on him, figuring there was plenty of reward and virtually no risk because they were adding a good student with a lot of character.
“Athletically, he could do some things,” Gard said, “but he was pretty raw.”
This is where Evans was 18 months ago, when Lamont Paris joined the UW coaching staff and was instantly enamored with what Evans could become:
“My initial impression was just potentially — and everyone uses that word — he could be so good for us and what we do, just could leave a thumbprint on all different aspects of the game: rebounding, some penetration, to shooting jump shots to posting up a little bit,” Paris said.
“He could really affect the game so many different ways. Defensively, he could guard multiple positions, just could do so many different things. When you see him at first, you get excited just looking at him and knowing what he was capable of being.”
And this is where Evans is right now: the Badgers’ second-leading scorer at 11.1 points per game, their leading rebounder at 6.8 per game and arguably their most versatile defender.
Not once during those seven seasons did Evans consider hanging up his high-top shoes or kicking his basketball to the curb.
“Some people might have in the position that I was in, not really seeing much time,” said Evans, who redshirted as a true freshman in 2008-09 before averaging 3.5 and 2.8 points, respectively, the next two seasons.
“But I would always keep going to the gym, keep working, keep working, keep working at night after practice, just with the mindset that hard work is going to pay off at some point, and it really has.”
Making huge strides
Evans is far from a finished product. His feel for the game — or “basketball IQ,” as Gard calls it — will improve the more he plays.
But Evans has made huge strides in two key areas, and it has shown during the NCAA tournament.
One is his shooting. Evans has given UW a huge lift early in games by consistently knocking down 15- to 18-foot jumpers from either the baseline or the elbow.
“Eighteen months ago,” Gard said, “that wasn’t a strength of his.”
It is now. Evans hit jumpers, including a 3-pointer, on four consecutive possessions early in the Badgers’ 73-49 victory over Montana in an NCAA tournament opener last Thursday in Albuquerque, N.M. Two days later, he scored UW’s first seven points and had eight during a 10-2 run to open the game during the Badgers’ 60-57 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday.
“I’ve just come in real focused,” Evans said. “I know if you lose, you go home.
“I kind of envision myself doing well and then I go out there and put it to work.”
The other area in which Evans has made significant improvement is his toughness. He came down with a huge rebound in the closing seconds of UW’s victory over Vanderbilt, but what caught the eye of his coaches was what he did in the moments leading up to the point where he leaped to grab the miss from 3-point range by Commodores star John Jenkins.
“That’s the game-winning play,” Paris said of how Evans, with the help of teammate Josh Gasser, made sure Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli didn’t end up with his 12th rebound of the game. “That’s a huge rebound. And the melee that took place before the rebound took place, that’s what was most impressive.
“Was it a good rebound? It was a great rebound. But in the trenches down there, was some stuff going on.
“It was mayhem down there, and to be able to rise to the top of that and even have the strength to actually jump above the crowd and get that rebound was impressive.”
Paris believes Evans, an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection this season, will take his game to another level by the time he leaves UW. The first step is acknowledging his deficiencies — ball-handling and a shaky shot selection top that list — and the next step is to address them.
Evans is just persistently stubborn and arrogant enough to pull it off.
“To his credit,” Paris said, “he has come out and backed up and confirmed what he has believed with his play on the court.”