Talkin’ Badgers basketball

I was never a huge fan of the mostly mediocre UW Badgers men’s basketball teams of my youth in the 80s and early 90s, but have grown to be a huge fan of Coach Bo Ryan and his program over the past decade-plus.

Among the reasons why is watching Bo take kids a step or two below “elite” status and develop their games over the course of four or five years, to the point where they leave college as completely different players/people than when they stepped on campus for the first time.Call me old school, but I appreciate the college basketball model of days past, where guys stayed three, four years before moving on to the NBA.

Nowadays, college ball is filled with a lot of guys biding their time until they turn 19 and become eligible for the NBA draft. It’s also filled with coaches who are just biding their time until a big-time school (and big-time dollars) come calling, oftentimes leaving after one year to chase the paycheck. (Keno…cough…Davis… cough…) But that’s a different topic for a different day.

A perfect example of Bo Ryan developing a player – almost maddeningly, at times – is redshirt junior forward Ryan Evans. A “late bloomer” who wasn’t recruited by many big-time programs, Evans has appeared in every game of his three active seasons in Madison, and has played a larger role in each subsequent year. This season he is averaging 10.0 points and 6.6 rebounds in 29.2 minutes per game. He also has a sometimes-questionable shot selection and puts the ball on the floor when he perhaps shouldn’t, but is long and athletic and has played some pretty solid defense.

It is for those reasons why Ryan Evans is something of an enigma and lightning rod for Badgers fans. He is accused of eluding Ryan’s quick hook out of a game after making a mistake and for taking minutes away from other players. But those who levy those accusations are often the same people who don’t like Ryan’s tendency to steer clear of recruiting potential “one-and-done” five-star recruits, and probably don’t appreciate how Ryan develops his players.

Admittedly, Evans has caused me some strife –- I have gone from shouting “No!” every time he put the ball on the floor when he was a freshman, to shouting “No!” when he took a shot from beyond 10 feet last year to only shouting “No!” this year when he launches a three-pointer. (And the one that was waved off in OT versus Michigan State did nothing for my confidence.) I’ve been skeptical, wondering if he was ever going to “get it” before his eligibility ran out.

However, as I have watched him over the course of this season, his work this year on the boards and on defense has really won me over. He doesn’t get pushed around by anyone and absolutely comes out of nowhere to grab some rebounds you thought he had no chance to get. I could still do without some of his bricks and missed free throws, but that’s all part of the learning and growing process.

I know Bo takes a lot of heat for his behavior, his approach and his recruiting, but guys like Ryan Evans show how great of a coach Bo really is. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Evans’ game develops over the summer and how he and Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren become the leaders of next year’s team.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Evans and the boys still have a lot of work to do this season. Three at home and three on the road yet, plus the Big Ten Conference tournament. Anything can happen when the race is as close as it is now and the teams are beating up on each other twice a week, but expect UW to emerge in the top five, if not top three, in the conference and enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed. Let’s Go Red!