For almost as long as Bo Ryan has been leading Wisconsin to victories, he's been starting each season with an exhibition against a lower division school in the UW system. Steady as always under Ryan, the Badgers will begin this season no differently, welcoming UW-River Falls to the Madison on Wednesday night for 7 p.m. tip.
The intrastate tradition will be one of the less grandiose legacies left by Ryan when he finally steps down, but an admirable one nonetheless. It gives players from programs around the state, many of whom starred at Wisconsin high schools, a chance to play under the Kohl Center lights against the team they probably grew up cheering for.
For Wisconsin's head coach, it's also a reminder of where he came from. Until his back-to-back Final Fours with the Badgers, Ryan was most famous for his remarkable career at Division III UW-Platteville, where he won four national championships and posted an .895 winning percentage over 15 seasons. He also spent two seasons at UW-Milwaukee, turning an 8-19 team into winners during his 30-27 stint, before arriving in Madison.
2015-16 Badgers echo '05-06 squad
The latest edition of Wisconsin basketball faces similar storylines to those of the 2005-06 Badgers squad, and that's kinda scary.
Ryan has now coached at Wisconsin as long as he did at Platteville, where the basketball court bears his name. Fittingly, the Pioneers were the first WIAC team to take part in an exhibition with the Badgers back in 2004. A year later, River Falls became the second. Wisconsin has now cycled through all the members of the WIAC in addition to taking on Division II UW-Parkside in last season's exhibition.
On the court, the Falcons will not match up with the Badgers this week any better than they did in 2005, when Wisconsin won, 79-52. River Falls does return four starters and is picked to finish fourth in the WIAC this year behind defending D-III champs UW-Stevens Point, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.
Wisconsin has won 11 of these state university exhibitions by an average of 33 points so real drama is not a major part of the recipe. You can expect the Badgers to easily dominate the paint even without Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. In fact, players like Jason Chappell, Keaton Nankivil, and Ryan Evans have led the team in scoring in the past, so don't be surprised if Vitto Brown looks like the next Karl-Anthony Towns out there.
Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig should look a little more dialed in against the Falcons, but this game is really about the youth anyway. Ethan Happ played against Parkside last season before redshirting, grabbing five rebounds and scoring five points in 12 minutes. The Happ buzz around the program has been palpable and he'll no doubt make an impact on Wednesday facing a team with only two players taller than 6'7".
Everyone wishes shooting guard Brevin Britzl was healthy enough to take part, but there are four other true freshman eager to show the home crowd something against a real opponent for the first time.
Those who tune in to BTN Plus to watch live will get with a better sense of which rookies will play early in Ryan's rotation, with the front runner being Charlie Thomas. With only two more tune-ups to go before the season opener, Khalil Iverson and Andy van Vliet will try to make a statement as well. Keep an eye out for Alex Illikainen because it might be the only time you see him this season.
Illikainen is one of 18 players on this year's expanded roster expected to participate in what could be Bo Ryan's final preseason game as head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers, walking onto a court that someday may have Ryan's name on it too.