MADISON, Wis. — His teams are never in a hurry, and their deliberate pace can drive opponents crazy.
His teams are never the most athletic.
And his players are rarely the darlings on television highlight shows for their gravity-defying dunks. This is not Air Madison.
But there’s one thing coach Bo Ryan’s University of Wisconsin basketball teams can be counted on to do, and that’s to win games and compete for Big Ten Conference titles.
As 12th-ranked Illinois heads to the Kohl Center for a game this afternoon, the Illini go there knowing this:
Bo knows winning basketball.
This is certainly not Ryan’s best Wisconsin team, especially after losing starting point guard Josh Gasser to a knee injury sustained during practice before the season ever began.
The Badgers are 11-4 and they’ve already lost one at home.
How rare is that?
This is Ryan’s 12th season as head coach. He’s taken the Badgers to 11 straight NCAA Tournaments and has never finished lower than fourth in the conference. Wisconsin’s record at the Kohl Center is a dazzling 175-16. Ryan’s Big Ten record during those 12 seasons is 134-54 and his winning percentage of .713 is the best in conference history. It’s better than No. 2 Thad Matta of Ohio State (100-41, .704) and No. 3 Bobby Knight of Indiana (353-141, .700).
In preparing for today’s game, Illini coach John Groce no doubt had flashbacks to his days as an Ohio State assistant from 2004-08 when he helped the Buckeyes game plan for Ryan’s Badger teams. Groce said most of the Ryan principles are still in place, although he has tweaked a few things to fit his current lineup.
Groce is impressed with the way Wisconsin has adapted to the loss of Gasser.
“They’ve done well,” he said. “Traevon Jackson and George Marshall have assumed the point guard duties by committee. They are two different players but they complement each other well. They take care of the ball well, which all Coach Ryan teams do.”
Wisconsin comes into today’s game with a five-game winning streak and as with all Ryan-coached teams, everything starts with defense.
After leading the nation in fewest points allowed last season, Wisconsin currently ranks No. 6 (54.9) and has held nine consecutive opponents to 60 points or less.
“They have a lot of similarities but some differences in how they defend things now compared to 2004-08 (when he was at Ohio State),” Groce said. “You are always going to see a heavy dose of swing offense, but they are doing some other things to take advantage of their personnel.
“They pass well, they take care of the ball, they defend and they never beat themselves. They are very fundamental, very sound. Those things haven’t changed during Bo’s tenure at Wisconsin.
“Their style on offense is very calculating. They are determined to get what they want and not very often do they take a bad shot or turn it over. They make very few discipline errors. When you do that, it lends itself to being efficient.”
Some opponents make the mistake of thinking they can push the pace against Wisconsin. Groce hopes only for a few opportunities.
“We always want to play faster, but the reality is it’s hard to speed them up. They handle the ball so well. If you gamble and become undisciplined, they make you pay. They want a game with a certain tempo and we want a game with a certain tempo. It will probably be in the middle and we’ve got to adapt.”
Groce has been impressed with the play of Wisconsin’s 6-10 senior Jared Berggren, who leads the Badgers in scoring.
“He’s really good defensively,” Groce said. “He’s gotten so much better. He can cover up a lot of things inside for them defensively. They use him the way we use Nnanna Egwu defensively.
“And he’s polished offensively. He’s very skilled. He can shoot from the perimeter and can score inside.”
It always helps to shoot a high percentage against Wisconsin, in part because the Badgers allow fewer possessions and fewer shots.
And shooting has slipped for the Illini.
Groce said he’d worry more about that if Illinois was not getting quality shots.
“We’ve been getting the ball into the paint,” he said. “Our 2-point field goal percentage has been good and our free throw percentage has been good. We just have to shoot (the 3-pointer) better. And I’m confident we’ll do that over the course of time. We’ve just hit a rough patch and that happens, but we’ll shoot it better, I’m confident about that.”
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