When Sam Dekker tried — and failed — to catch a pass with one hand the other night, Saul Phillips knew what would come next. The buzzer sounded. Another Badger entered the game. Dekker went to the bench. Bo Ryan followed him to his seat.
"Anybody who ever played for Bo knew what Bo was gonna tell him," said Phillips, who played for Ryan at Wisconsin-Platteville and now is the head coach at North Dakota State. " 'Catch the ball with two hands!' There are a lot of people out there who've experienced the exact same message."
And now they're experiencing the exact same euphoria. Since Wisconsin's 64-63 overtime victory against Arizona sent the Badgers to the Final Four for the first time since 2000, much has been made of Ryan finally getting there, too. Right or wrong, it's been cast as validation for the coach, as though the demarcation between good and great was the scissor snipping down the nets after a regional final.
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Ryan has downplayed the accomplishment. But to those who knew him back when he built an NCAA Division III program into a four-time national champion, it's huge.
"All of us from Platteville are proud of him," Phillips said. "It's as big of a deal to us as to his immediate family, because we've all known he was this good."
They're also proud to see Ryan has built Wisconsin's program in the same way as he did at Wisconsin-Platteville, where the Pioneers won four national championships in 15 years: tough, overlooked kids, precisely executing fundamentals as simple as the proper way to throw and catch the basketball. The Badgers begin each practice by practicing just that, and it could be a bunch of middle-schoolers learning the game.
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Or those kids back at Wisconsin-Platteville.
"It's the worst thing in the world," said Travis Schreiber, who played on two undefeated national championship teams for the Pioneers. "We would do 'partner-passing' to the point where our backs were sore. But you knew the value of the ball. You knew those little things meant a great deal. When you get to the Final Four level, the margin is very slim."
That truth apparently translates at any level. The Badgers are headed to Arlington, Texas, where they'll play Kentucky in a semifinal on Saturday with a roster that is not studded with future NBA stars (though 7-foot junior Frank Kaminsky might be developing into something very special). Ryan's teams at Wisconsin-Platteville played in five Final Fours.
"He had some darn good teams at Platteville," Ryan's wife Kelly said Saturday night, recalling fondly the buses filled with fans that would follow the Pioneers. "People would say, 'It's (only) Division III,' and I'd say, 'You know what? The trophy is the same. Division I or Division III, it looks exactly the same.' "
Schreiber is now in the insurance business in Madison, Wis., where he has season tickets for Wisconsin basketball games and an up-close look at how much Ryan's Badgers teams resemble the ones he played on in Platteville, about 70 miles southwest. In 1994-95 and 1997-98, the Pioneers went undefeated.
"We didn't get that way by not paying attention to detail," Schreiber said. "From partner-passing, to just simple defensive rotation drills, to breaking the game down to its component parts. … A lot of the same things we did at Platteville, he did at (Wisconsin-Milwaukee), and he's doing at Madison.
"I'm not saying it could have been us, but it kind of feels like us back at Platteville. The execution, the businesslike approach … even though it's a different uniform, it's very familiar."
Phillips noted that in a comparison of Arizona sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski and Kaminsky, who faced off, "One guy looks like an NBA draft pick, and the other guy looks like he just woke up from a nap." Kaminsky, a late bloomer, scored 28 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, clearly getting the best of the matchup.
"That sums up what Bo has done his whole life," Phillips said. "I don't think you'll ever see any coach who can claim they get more out of their guys than Bo does. There's no four- or five-star guys. He gets guys who fit his system."
They also see the same system. There's no one-to-one comparison to Kaminsky, of course. But in the head-fakes, the ball-fakes, the spins and especially the pivots, Schreiber and others see the four post moves taught with great precision by Ryan: the Moses (a drop-step), the Dominique (a step-through) the Sikma (a reverse pivot) and the McHale (a jump hook).
And that's not the only thing. In the Badgers, they see the same close-knit chemistry they had in Platteville.
"The way the guys love each other and the way 'Coach' loves his players, that's always been the case," Schreiber said. "There's really good camaraderie. You've got the right people in the locker room who are tough, and the right people who are funny."
That apparently includes Ryan. Current players praise his consistency, and say he sometimes says things they don't get, "but at the end of the day," Dekker said, "it works."
"What he said was never wrong," said Phillips, who worked for Ryan at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Wisconsin, and says Ryan has "a gift" for teaching. "In terms of teaching basketball, everything that comes out of his mouth, if you let your ego go, he was right."
Phillips said Ryan always seemed to have the right thing to say, too. And sometimes it wasn't instruction. Like the time when one of Ryan's three daughters — Phillips wouldn't disclose which — went through a brief phase when she was 3, or maybe 4, when she wanted to be a dog. She spent one game crawling, growling and barking on the other side of the gymnasium, in full view of, well, everyone.
After committing a turnover, Phillips was yanked from the game, just as he expected. But as he stewed on the bench, Ryan crouched, looked him in the eye, and then delivered the perfect message for, in Phillips' self-description, "a high-strung kid who wanted to be better than I was."
"You think you've got problems?" Ryan told Phillips. "My daughter thinks she's a dog."
She grew out of that phase, of course. Phillips never became a great player — "I played Division III because there wasn't a Division IV," he said — but he developed into a good coach and has built a winning program at North Dakota State. And although Ryan long ago moved on from Platteville — where the court bears his name and Pioneers basketball became "a real big family," according to Wayne Simmons, a former neighbor of the Ryans — the same principles have been applied to building Wisconsin's current success at a much higher level.
To those who say the formula looks exactly as it did back then?
"I've heard that from more people," Ryan said, "that this team … reminds them of those teams more than any team we've had here. I'll let people have their opinion. That's fine with me."
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