By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) Perhaps this is a copout and hardly a display of great prose, but I can’t think of a more creative way to say the following: Wisconsin is the model to which most Big Ten basketball programs — save blueblood Michigan State — should strive to become.
The statement is equally as emblematic of the way the team plays, recruits and is talked about. Really, Badgers basketball is the most simplistic brand of the sport.
Simplicity, though, can be a form of luxury. With an 8-1 conference record and No.10 ranking in the AP Poll, Wisconsin finds itself sitting in the Big Ten’s penthouse.
The Badgers play a harassing style of man-to-man defense aimed at preventing easy baskets and — here’s the real key — limiting fouls. Wisconsin is one of the few major programs in the country that opens its practice to media members. I’ve seen a handful. Nearly all of its practice sessions feature five-on-five scrimmages, the simulation of specific situations and a staff of assistants over-officiating these sessions, the theory being that it will condition players to play a hands-off brand of defense.
Offensively, Wisconsin has patented the “swing offense,” the brand name for a motion offense that features four players on the perimeter and one in the post. It’s best known for allowing guards to post up and the reason nearly all of the big men Wisconsin recruits can shoot from the outside.
It’s actually incredibly boring but works like Ambien: Give it time and it lulls opponents to sleep. Sometimes viewers too, which may be why Wisconsin is less heralded than it deserves — especially given the program’s success since 2000.
Much of that should be credited to the now-retired Bo Ryan, but current coach Gard was an assistant on Ryan’s staff since 1993 when they coached at UW-Platteville. Gard took over the program in the middle of last season on an interim basis, led the Badgers to the Sweet 16 and eventually earned the job outright.
He’s a torchbearer for Ryan’s philosophies, which have made the Badgers one of the most consistent programs in the conference since 2000. They’ve made every tournament since then and been one-and-done only once.
The Badgers have made nine Sweet 16s in that span, including three straight. So they’re as good a bet as any to play in the tournament’s second weekend.
Wisconsin has accomplished all of this by spitting on the idea that recruiting is the lifeblood of college basketball. Thirteen of the 17 players currently listed on the Badgers’ roster are from cities within driving distance of Madison. And sure, they’ve gotten highly rated recruits like Sam Dekker or current starter Nigel Hayes.
But the program is better known for developing a player like Frank Kaminsky, who didn’t even start on his AAU team but developed into the ninth overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. It’s also made its living finding players like current big man Ethan Happ, whose only other high major offer came from Arizona State.
Happ started 35 games last season as a true freshman and leads the way with 14.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game this season.
Maybe that’s the secret: Wisconsin wants players to enter its program anonymously. The Badgers like the fact that no one is watching.
Because if they were, wouldn’t the conference have caught up by now?
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.