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Last year, in my first and likely only season as a member of the press covering coach Bo Ryan and his Wisconsin Badgers, I learned quickly that failure is a large part of Ryan's basketball philosophy. Perhaps more accurately, failure is a large part of Bo Ryan's basketball life.
In the roughly 20 Ryan press conferences I attended, particularly those after Badgers wins, Ryan would invariably answer a vanilla question about this adjustment or that player's performance with a long, seemingly irrelevant story of some past basketball failure, or occasionally even a broader life failure. The primary goal of Ryan's stories, I believe, is to shorten the press conference in the precise fashion his swing offense shortens the game with lengthy possessions. The beat writers have already written their stories by the time Ryan takes the podium. Bo knows this, and Bo wants to answer as few of their questions as possible. In this sense, I identify heavily with Bo Ryan.
These stories are about previous Badgers teams, or about his time at other schools like Milwaukee or Platteville, or about his time playing, whether in college or in high school in Pennsylvania. As disconnected from the previous 40 minutes of basketball as they appear on the surface-thus rendering them useless to the beat writer on the deadline-they revealed a vision of basketball as a game where failure inevitably supplants success.
The story I will never forget, the one that embedded itself deep into my mind as soon as I heard it, came after the most thrilling game I have ever attended in person. On February 9th, 2013, Wisconsin upset Michigan, then #3 and the presumed #1 with a victory, in overtime, an overtime only realized after Badgers guard Ben Brust drained a half-court shot as time expired.
Ryan was asked whether he thought his team had some kind of late-game magic against Michigan, a reference to not only Brust's shot but also Josh Gasser's banked-in buzzer three-pointer to win a February 2011 matchup against the Wolverines in Ann Arbor:
Michigan coach John Beilein was asked a similar question minutes earlier, during his turn at the podium. Beilein was asked if this was just more of that "Kohl Center magic" that Ryan's Wisconsin team seemed to possess. Wisconsin is 195-21 (.902) at the Kohl Center in Ryan's 13 seasons as coach, a level of success that hadn't translated to the neutral courts of the NCAA Tournament until Wisconsin beat Arizona to reach the Final Four last Saturday.
Nobody who was in the stands that day would deny Brust's shot had qualities of magic. But there is an implication when these questions are posed to the players and the coach who made it happen. It's an implication that the success wasn't just lucky, but undeserved because of its improbable fashion.
This implication wasn't lost on Ryan. The question, and his response:
"This is my indoctrination into basketball: my own coach trying to take a basket away from me." Coaches and players have been learning this lesson throughout the history of sports. Successes will be dismissed swiftly if they are not achieved in the proper fashion. The proper fashion is not a bank shot. The proper fashion is also not Ryan's swing offense, we were told, as Ryan's Badgers failed to make the Final Four in each of his first 12 seasons.
The college basketball season has a cruel structure. Teams play 30 to 35 games in the regular season. It's a season I have come to love since my time as a student at Wisconsin. The tension of rivalry games and conference races has been nothing short of addicting. But all their incredible feats and dramatic wins from these 30 games and 1,200 minutes of basketball go up in a wisp of smoke should March go wrong. A single-elimination tournament decides if those prior successes meant anything or if they were nothing but part of a larger failure. For 12 seasons, the NCAA Tournament had decided Ryan's successes meant nothing.
That day last February, Bo Ryan and his players sat down at the press conference podium having just experienced one of the most exciting successes they had ever achieved in their basketball lives. It was the kind of game to tell their kids about, or maybe now it is the game to show their kids on YouTube. And then a guy with a sound recorder and a laptop tried to tell them it wasn't their hard work, the countless times they practiced that play, or what they did to keep the game within three points with 2.4 seconds remaining. It wasn't you, that question said, it was magic.
Good luck trying to sneak that past Bo Ryan. Basketball has been trying to turn his successes into failures since that first bank shot from the top of the key at Swarthmore College. A shot that, by the way, counted.
My happiness when the buzzer sounded Saturday night and the Badgers cut down the nets to head to the Final Four was of course, in large part, typical fan happiness, the excitement that builds up over the years of following a team and over the games of the individual season. But I had seen plenty of Wisconsin basketball successes in the past. This one was different. This was the kind of success nobody would dismiss, or turn into a failure. And knowing Ryan's stories of failures and dismissed successes made last Saturday's victory wonderfully cathartic.
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