After nearly every player on the floor had come up big for the University of Wisconsin during crunch time in its NCAA men's basketball tournament game against Kansas State and star guard Jacob Pullen on Saturday night, coach Bo Ryan was asked how the team was able to win without having a go-to guy down the stretch.
"Camouflage," Ryan said. "They don't know who we're going to at the end."
It's not often in the past four months that Ryan has been able to say that with a straight face.
Indeed, for a large chunk of the season, UW didn't really look like a Ryan-coached team. It had three players doing the bulk of the scoring and many of the rest hadn't shown the individual improvement on offense that Ryan's players usually make.
That all changed during UW's first two NCAA tournament games in Tucson, Ariz. In beating Belmont and Kansas State to advance to the Sweet 16, the fourth-seeded Badgers finally found the scoring balance that had eluded them all season.
"It was just guys stepping up and giving us good production," forward Jon Leuer said. "It's fun to see when the bench is into it and guys are stepping up, making plays that maybe they haven't been making all year. It just energizes our whole team. For them to do that at this point in the season is huge."
Huge? It was bigger than that for the Badgers.
All season, Leuer, guard Jordan Taylor and forward Keaton Nankivil had done the heavy lifting on offense. They didn't do it out of selfishness, they did it out of necessity. If they didn't score, the Badgers didn't score.
But UW made a significant leap as a team over the weekend, and it was because players such as Mike Bruesewitz, Tim Jarmusz, Josh Gasser, Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans made significant leaps individually. They were more aggressive, more confident and ultimately more productive on offense than they had been all season.
"Everyone knows that when they play us it's going to be Jordan, Jon and Keaton doing most of the dirty work on offense," Gasser said. "But in order to win in March and win in big games against good teams, you have to have the - quote, unquote - role players step up. We've been doing a good job of that so far. Everyone keeps telling us to be aggressive. When we're playing with confidence, we're a lot better. So if we keep doing that, I think we can keep it rolling a little longer."
The difference in UW's role players over the weekend was their consistency. After making sporadic contributions for much of the season, they were factors on offense in both games from start to finish.
In the two wins, Bruesewitz had 19 points and 15 rebounds; Jarmusz had 13 points and six assists; Gasser had 12 points; Berggren had eight points; and Evans had seven points. That might not seem like off-the-charts stuff, but it was exactly what UW needed.
During the non-conference season, UW's role players - defined as anyone not named Leuer, Taylor or Nankivil - averaged 27.8 points per game and accounted for 38.9 percent of the team's offense.
That all changed once UW hit the Big Ten Conference, where every team except Northwestern plays solid if not stifling defense. In 19 games against Big Ten teams, UW's role players fell to 16.9 points per game and accounted for 25.6 percent of the offense.
But in two games against high-level competition in Tucson, the role players were even better than they had been against the North Dakotas and Prairie View A&Ms earlier in the season. Collectively, they averaged 29 points per game and scored 40.8 percent of the team's points.
Admittedly, that is a small sample. And it came against teams that didn't know UW's offensive tendencies like Big Ten teams do. However, most of Ryan's role players had shown signs of progress late in the season and, afforded openings because the bulk of the defensive pressure was directed toward the big three, they finally put it together over the weekend.
"We practice every day and people are hitting the same shots," Nankivil said. "We know everybody's capable of it, but it's finally that time of the year where it comes out that we have this kind of talent. There's been days when Tim has hit what feels like 10 3s in practice. He's capable of doing it on any given night. And Mike's the same way, Josh is the same way, all the way down the line. It's really not a surprise to us. We know the kind of people we have on this team. We expect them to do those kinds of things."
For a change, that wasn't just camouflage.