Reexamining the return of Ryan Evans

The Big Ten Network did a nice job of foreshadowing with its programming this week. If you caught the replay of last season's upset over Duke on Monday, you got a nice warm up to what Wisconsin did against No. 10 Purdue on Tuesday.

Last year Jon Leuer burst onto the national scene with 17 points and 7 rebounds against the No. 5 Blue Devils, and a redshirt freshman by the name of Ryan Evans also emerged. The Arizona native collected eight rebounds and blocked two shots in 21 minutes while sparkling defensively on Kyle Singler during crunch time.

Though Leuer's blue-collar performance against the Boilermakers (24 points, a career-high 13 rebounds) gave us flashbacks to Duke, the more surprising similarity between the two wins was the play of Evans. Despite being little more than an afterthought during this Big Ten season, Evans reprised his key role in UW's biggest win this season. Even though his play seemed to come out of left field, a second look reveals just how fine a line there is between success and failure in college basketball.

Among Evans' 10 points were the alley-oop flush with 10 minutes left that sparked a 15-3 Wisconsin run, the go-ahead jumper in the final minute, a huge tie-up with E'Twaun Moore, and the game-sealing breakaway dunk. More importantly, no turnovers in 19 minutes. Not bad for a guy averaging less than 6 mpg in league play.

Much was expected from Evans in his sophomore campaign after showing flashes of big-play ability during his first season and traveling with a summer all-star squad. Perhaps too much. In fact, prior to the Purdue game, you probably associated Evans mostly with dumb fouls, adventuresome ball handling, and an odd-looking jump shot.

Did it finally come together for Evans on Tuesday or could it be that Evans has been playing pretty much the same way all along and the breaks just went his way finally? Fire up the DVR if you can, and this is what you will see:

  • Five minutes into the game, Evans made a nifty baseline drive for a layup, but crashed into the help defender positioned under the basket as a result. Good move by Evans, but we've all seen that play called an offensive foul on other occasions. And more often than not, that means a quick hook from Bo Ryan. For whatever reason, Ryan stuck with Evans and it paid off. You have to love the aggressiveness from Evans when it is harnessed correctly.
  • Granted, E'Twaun Moore is a tough assignment for anyone. But Evans spent a lot of his 19 minutes watching Moore drive right past him or switching defenders when he couldn't keep up. I actually think Tim Jarmusz would have been a better match, but Evans does bring the shot blocking threat to the table. Conversely, Evans stayed out of foul trouble and did not make any stupid passes like Jarmusz did to start the second half.
  • No missed bunnies. Evans converted on everything near the rim, save for one bull rush that was blocked by JaJuan Johnson. His jump shot was only okay -- he hit 1-of-4. But those are shots the coaches want him to take because all but one was in rhythm and wide open. Jared Berggren offers that same aggressiveness, while a Jarmusz or Rob Wilson type might have stopped shooting and not been in the mindset to finally hit the game-winner.
  • Late in the game, Evans skyed to grab a rebound, lost the ball coming down and fell to the floor on top of a Purdue player. Earlier in the year that balled may have bounced out of bounds, returning possession to the other team while fans wondered aloud why Evans couldn't just squeeze it. This time the ball just happened to bounce right into Leuer's hands near the end line and Wisconsin's defense got credit for an important stop.
  • Evans owned the defining defensive play of the game by drawing the jump ball call on Moore's final drive. Evans probably did graze a bit of Moore's body before he cleanly tied him up, and sometimes he will get called for that foul because he hasn't earned the respect of officials yet. Against the Boilers, he just made a great play at the perfect time.

I do not want to downplay the significance of Evans' contributions, but I do want to be realistic about what they meant with regard to his sudden "development." A player should never be judged solely on his best or worst moments, because sometimes basketball is a game of mere inches. Evans has a lot of work to do to become reliable on the court and create these same opportunities consistently. And he'll get there, just not all at once.

More than anything, performances like these underscore how small Wisconsin's margin for error is. Without the ability to force turnovers consistently, the Badgers rely on their shooting and superior ball control to gain an advantage. This can be a hard situation for younger players to thrive in. But when role players like Evans, Josh Gasser and Mike Bruesewitz get a little mojo behind them, the Badgers are nearly impossible to beat.

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