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Bo Ryan: Big Ten Coach of the Year?

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A decade ago, Bo Ryan hauled in back-to-back conference coach of the year awards. With the Badgers greatly surpassing expectations this season, could he do it again?

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Understanding the success of Wisconsin men's basketball starts with one underlying principle: Bo Ryan doesn't change.

As the world surrounding him gets caught up in the Twitterverse, as coaches toss out playbooks and start anew in search of the best system for today's game, Ryan remains a beacon of consistency in college basketball.

The critics -- and there are more than a handful -- say he wins through his system. They say he wins ugly. They say his glacially paced squads are nothing but painful to watch. But Ryan doesn't care; he'll flash his soon-to-be 12 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances as evidence that he may be stubborn, but damned if it doesn't work.

In his 12 years in Madison, he may never have produced so much from such few resources as he has with a Badgers unit that is making a last-second charge for the Big Ten title with three games remaining in conference play. The same Big Ten that has earned universal recognition as the nation's most competitive conference in 2012.

Ryan's guiding a team with not a single player averaging over 11.6 points per game to the brink of a Big Ten title, a team the media selected to finish fifth in the preseason polls -- and that was before starting point guard Josh Gasser was lost for the year with a torn ACL.

Many have said this may be Ryan's most masterful work of a career replete with surprisingly strong finishes, and they are right. It is just that body of work that should peg him not just as the front-runner, but indeed the clear victor for Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.

Ryan's earned that honor twice, in his first year with the Badgers in 2002 and again in 2003. He is even more deserving of this one. The only other season that compares to his body of work in 2012-13 came back in 2001-02, when UW earned a share of the Big Ten title despite the sizable hurdles of a new staff and a fresh (though still defensively-minded) system.

Though his 19-win campaign in his first season with Wisconsin was certainly impressive, the Big Ten was not stacked with the depth it boasts this year. In 2002, the conference sent five teams to the NCAA tournament, none of them higher than a fourth seed, though Indiana (a fifth seed) did make a run to the national title game.

If ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi's latest predictions hold true, seven Big Ten squads will take part in March Madness this year and three of them will be either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. The top-to-bottom strength of basketball in the Midwest is nothing less than stunning, and it provides a massive jolt to Ryan's coach of the year resume.

So just who, exactly, are his competitors to win the award for the first time in a decade?

The most compelling case comes from Indiana's Tom Crean, who has restored the glory to the Cream and Crimson in his fifth season with the Hoosiers. Crean deserves considerable praise for reversing the fortunes of a program that was in absolute shambles when he arrived in Bloomington in 2008. But Indiana was supposed to be an elite power this year.

With Cody Zeller returning after a star freshman campaign, highly regarded freshman Yogi Ferrell manning the point and an even better-than-expected Victor Oladipo emerging as a National Player of the Year candidate, Crean's roster is loaded with talent. At least two of his current players will likely be top-15 picks in June's NBA Draft, and Indiana has lived up to the tremendous hype it faced as the nation's top-ranked team in preseason polls.

Ryan, on the other hand, has relied on three players who spent the bulk of their careers as role players (Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans), a streaky shooter previously regarded as a defensive liability (Ben Brust), a sophomore who had seen sparse minutes forced to play out of position and man the point (Traevon Jackson) and an immensely talented freshman still learning the intricacies of the college game (Sam Dekker). That Wisconsin has lost only one more conference game than Indiana despite a massive talent gap is a tribute to Ryan's ability to shape his gameplans around his available pool of players.

The only other serious competitor for the award is Michigan State's Tom Izzo. Izzo has composed another marvelous year for the Spartans, a team also firmly planted in the conference title race, but he still had more to work with than Ryan. And he just won the award in 2012 for the third time, and as we all learned in kindergarten, sharing is a good thing, right?

When woeful shooting plagued the Badgers earlier this year, Ryan responded by convincing his players to fully buy in to his defensive principles, gradually sculpting them into one of the top defenses not just in the Big Ten, but the nation. In the words of that one freshman who's been an invaluable cog in the most unlikely of runs for the conference crown, Ryan's way has become the Badger way.

"We're just playing better Badger basketball, and that's what we're built [for] and that's what we've worked on to this point to get at," Dekker said Sunday. "We think we can win every game, no matter where we're playing, no matter who we're playing."

They have worked for this moment, and that moment has arrived. It's only fair to hand the hardware to the conductor of an orchestra that has grown all the more harmonious with time. Because some things -- like Wisconsin being in the mix for a Big Ten title come late-February -- will never change.