It's funny. Opposing fans occasionally joke that Bo Ryan has made a deal with the devil -- or worse, that he is the devil himself. (Oh, Internet...) Yet it's easy even for Badger fans to let their minds wander and speculate on what kind of sorcery Wisconsin is using to maintain its lofty perch in the Big Ten this season.
Wisconsin (19-8, 10-4 Big Ten) is a seriously flawed team that somehow is poised to make one final run at a league title in a season when the most ardent supporters who watched UW struggle through the non-conference schedule were resigned to seeing the Badgers regress back to the middle of the conference pack.
As I watched Wisconsin dismantle a wretched Northwestern squad late last Wednesday night, I kept thinking about where this year's Badgers would be without good rebounding. Likely they would have two or three more losses. Minnesota and Iowa would have certainly beaten UW in Madison, and the Badgers might not have survived one of those ugly games early on against Penn State or Nebraska.
Their field goal shooting in those four games? A robust 83-of-227 (36.6 percent). But the Badgers got themselves second chances in those games, grabbing 47 offensive boards.
You could make the argument that this year's team is the most impressive rebounding unit on both ends of the floor that Bo Ryan has ever coached. And I'm about to.
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Considering the team starts three seniors in the frontcourt, quality rebounding is expected to some degree. But what we're seeing is Ryan's second-best defensive rebounding team of the tempo-free era (i.e.: since 2002-03). The Badgers are limiting opponents to an offensive rebounding rate of 26 percent, ranking them seventh in the country. In other words, Wisconsin regains possession 74 percent of the time when the other team clanks a shot. Only the Alando Tucker/Mike Wilkinson/Zach Morley team from 2004-05 -- which held opponents to 25.9 OR% -- narrowly edges this year's team.
Other Badger teams have excelled at keeping opponents off the offensive glass, too. Wisconsin is a top-40 team annually in this regard. In fact, the 2009 and 2010 teams each ranked among the top five teams in the country in defensive rebounding rate.
The difference between this 2013 team and those others is that Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz and company are also hitting the offensive glass with abandon. So far this season, the Badgers have snagged 34.6 percent of their own misfires, a rate placing them a modest 80th nationally, but well above the Division I average (31.9 percent).
For comparison's sake, there was a three-year stretch (2005-2008) during the Brian Butch days which included the back-to-back 30-win seasons, where UW collected at least 35 percent of its own misses each year, a mark well ahead of the national average. However, those teams did not rebound as well defensively. Additionally, the national average for offensive rebounding rate has steadily declined over the last 8-10 years, making what Wisconsin is doing this year more impressive.
Berggren has stood out by turning up his game of late. The redshirt senior from Princeton, Minn., is averaging over eight rebounds per game since the Iowa win (I'm counting the four overtime sessions as an extra half-game). Berggren (7.0) and Evans (7.6) are tops on the team in rebounds-per-game as well as offensive and defensive rebounding rate.
It is not just the forwards doing the work either ... it never is. Ben Brust has either invested heavily in flubber or found some sort of secret Mexican jumping bean tonic. Either way, the junior guard has led the team in scoring and rebounding the past two games, logging his fifth double-double of the year against Ohio State. Brust captures 15.2 percent of the defensive rebounding opportunities while he's on the floor.
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After scuffling to start the season, the Badgers' defense has once again rounded into form. So much so that it is being lauded as historically great. Defensive rebounding certainly plays a role in that. However, as I alluded to earlier, Wisconsin's rebounding on both ends has been critical particularly because of how poor UW is at shooting the ball.
This is Ryan's worst-ever free throw shooting team, his second-worst 3-point shooting team and second-worst in terms of overall offensive efficiency. Not only is the offense not on par with Wisconsin teams historically, it ranks low in the Big Ten as well. It's a team built around big guys, go figure.
Look at these ranks using conference statistics only: last in FT% (.596), 8th in FG% (.403), 7th in 3FG% (.320), 9th in turnover margin (-0.21).
Luckily, Wisconsin's phenomenal field goal defense makes up the difference, while the rebounding pushes UW into the realm it's in today. The Badgers own the league's top defensive rebounding rate (.738) and an offensive rebounding average (11.7 per game) that ranks fifth. It all adds up to the fourth-best rebounding margin (+3.6) in the Big Ten.
Can this really be the same team that could not rebound to save its life against Florida or Creighton? Let's hope the change is for real.
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After battering Northwestern, Wisconsin has moved up to No. 17 in the AP poll. That seems normal for the Badgers, but it might be overachieving for this group. The Badgers are a lock to reach 20 wins for the 10th time in 12 seasons under Ryan -- and seventh in a row. Wisconsin's bye week allowed it to rest up starting its stretch run at home with Nebraska on Tuesday night.
The mountain top is in sight. The Michigan State-Ohio State game over the weekend was a win-win proposition for the Badgers. Wisconsin knew it would either distance itself from OSU to secure a 12th consecutive top-four conference finish if MSU won, or UW would better its chances of finishing second in the league if the Buckeyes beat the Spartans. I think we all can agree that the Ohio State win was probably the most enjoyable route. Thanks, Buckeyes!
Now, Wisconsin will earn at worst the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament if the Badgers win out. So really, the season comes down to the Michigan State game.
And if Wisconsin wins, Bo Ryan should be your Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Tom Crean might help preseason No. 1 Indiana to a Big Ten championship. Nice. Tom Izzo lost do-everything Draymond Green and is still in line for a title shot without a clear star.
Yet Ryan replaced Jordan Taylor with Josh Gasser, then lost Gasser for the year before he played one minute. At the most important position on the floor. Without a single returning first-, second- or third-team All-Big Ten player available to him, something every other team in the top half of the conference standings had this season.
I am not the first person to broach the subject of Ryan winning the award. Ryan's old coach and mentor, Ron Rainey, fired up that bus after the Michigan upset. The whole idea probably has been bouncing around in people's heads ever since the win at Indiana put UW in the early Big Ten driver's seat at 4-0.
Though Ryan won't waste any breath talking up individual awards, now is the time for his third Big Ten COY honor. All Bo needs to do is win. All the Badgers have to do is rebound. And that's just what they intend to do.
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