By Chris Emma
(CBS) INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — In bold lettering on their red warm-up shirts, the Wisconsin Badgers are reminded of what their program’s culture is all about:
The Badger Way
What does it mean?
“Just going out there, playing hard and trying to do things to help make the team successful,” says Wisconsin senior guard Ben Brust, who posted a career-high 29 points in Friday’s 83-57 rout of Minnesota. “We got a bunch of guys who try and do that.”
In his 13 seasons at the helm of Wisconsin’s once-dormant basketball program, Bo Ryan has created a remarkable model of consistency. The Badgers have never missed the NCAA Tournament in each of Ryan’s first 12 seasons, and have never won fewer than 19 games.
Sustained success stems from recruiting, where Ryan finds fit. Wisconsin works with a sure-handed point guard, a lights-out wing and bruising big man. The chemistry in the locker room always seems to be strong. It starts from the head coach and spreads throughout the roster.
“We’ve got that senior leadership, we’ve got a great group of juniors, and we’ve got good freshmen all the way through,” freshman guard Bronson Koenig says. “Great coaches and everything. And we’re really unselfish with the ball.”
Above all, the Badgers buy in. There’s a trust between player and coach, backed by the program’s run of accomplishment. Koenig is a primary example; he’s a talented prospect that picked Wisconsin over offers from Duke, North Carolina and many more.
What Ryan’s teams have been lacking is a Final Four appearance. Only once has Wisconsin pushed past the Sweet 16. Perhaps these Badgers are Coach Bo’s best.
Wisconsin’s midseason slide, which saw losses in five of six games, seems hard to remember now. A team that opened the season 16-0 has now won nine of its last 10 games, getting red hot at the right time.
“We’re a very confident team right now, and hopefully ready to make a run,” says sophomore forward Sam Dekker.
What makes Wisconsin so dangerous is its scoring distribution. Points are spread throughout a well-balanced Badger rotation. There’s no one player counted on for a dominating performance each night out.
“Coach isn’t worried about losing something putting a guy in,” Dekker says. “When you can gain something putting a guy in you’re going to be much better.”
Perhaps it was fitting that Ryan forcefully declined to comment on the Badgers’ NCAA Tournament hopes, or anything beyond Saturday’s Big Ten semifinal showdown with Michigan State. His team could earn a top seed in the Big Dance, but his focus isn’t slipping past the Spartans.
“Sunflower seeds?” Ryan joked. “I used to chew those in baseball.”
It takes such focus to make a run in the month of March. Ryan has Wisconsin poised for postseason success. The players bought in long ago.
It’s the Badger way.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter@CEmmaScout.