Bo Ryan just took Wisconsin to its first Final Four since 2000 and if you don't think he wants to get back to a second one, you haven't been paying attention to recruiting.
The Badgers came out gunning with offers last spring to the brightest stars in the 2015 class -- guys like Henry Ellenson, Charles Matthews and Carlton Bragg. They sprinkled in a few more important offers since then, but basically Ryan and his assistants have been working on Diamond Stone and the other big boys to feel out their situation.
During the July evaluation period, UW appears to be pushing ahead even more aggressively with another round of big offers. And I have to say, I like it.
Opportunities at Wisconsin are bountiful right now for rising high school seniors. The core of last year's 30-win team will graduate, leaving holes at center and guard and a handful of open scholarships. The possibility of Sam Dekker turning pro early potentially makes another scholarship available.
The staff is playing its hand confidently. New offers went out in the last week to Ohio forward Esa Ahmad and 2016 power forward T.J. Leaf from San Diego. These are mostly consensus 4-star players that UW may not have bothered to recruit in the past either this late in the cycle or with this much competition. However, the Wisconsin brand is hot enough right now to get them in the room.
Thanks to assistant Lamont Paris, Wisconsin has been very familiar with Ahmad going back as far as last summer. Ahmad paced his All-Ohio Red AAU squad in the EYBL Finals at the Nike Peach Jam in Atlanta last week, and Bo Ryan was in attendance watching several of his top targets.
Though the Badgers stepped up their interest in Ahmad this past spring, they refrained from offering a scholarship until a week ago. Multiple outlets reported the offer, including 247 Sports' Evan Flood. Flood immediately changed his Crystal Ball prediction for Ellenson to Marquette as a result, although I don't agree that an offer to Ahmad is the death knell for Wisconsin's chances with Ellenson.
Ahmad's skill set suggests he will play more small forward than power forward in college. After viewing film on Ahmad, his versatility is unmistakable. He has shed some baby fat in the last two years and is capable of beating big men off the bounce easily, yet he has good size and can block shots. He also has good athleticism and a nice-looking shot. In addition, Ahmad possess an important intangible which is very attractive to UW: toughness.
West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins has been recruiting Ahmad relentlessly of late and the Mountaineers have told him he'd be playing some shooting guard if he committed to WVU.
Current Badgers Nigel Hayes and Traevon Jackson have played for All-Ohio Red -- a perennially strong travel program -- in the past. Maybe Hayes can put in a good word for his team.
Despite offering at such a late stage, I think Wisconsin is in good shape to stay involved after Ahmad trims his long list of suitors at the end of the month. Getting him to head west past Maryland, West Virginia, and Ohio State is another story.
Ellenson has long been my top choice among the state's prep big men because of his perfect fit within Ryan's offense. His recent jump up the national rankings only adds to his allure. Even though Ellenson is looking like a long shot to suit up at Wisconsin at the moment, getting Ahmad would be nearly as good a catch.
T.J. Leaf is an intriguing target for Wisconsin because he seemingly has no ties to the area. Michigan and Indiana are already hot on the trail of the slender 6'9" big man, who is averaging 16 points and six rebounds this summer in the Adidas Gauntlet AAU league. Even if the recruitment goes nowhere, it doesn't hurt to the Badgers to get in the conversation with more top recruits across the country. Plus, we can discover awesome surprises like Leaf's mixtapes.
One attribute which recently-offered players like Ahmad, Leaf, Amir Coffey, Payton Pritchard and Jimmy Whitt have in common is their playmaking ability. Even a player like Khalil Iverson, a possible candidate for the next small forward offer in 2015, possesses great court vision. The well-built Iverson hails from the Columbus, Ohio area and reminds me some of Mr. Chocolate Tornado himself, Nigel Hayes.
Wisconsin got the 2015 class off to a very good start when in-state shooting guard Brevin Pritzl committed before his stock took off. Now Ryan will have to convert on some of these offers before proclaiming the dawning of a new day.
* Wisconsin takes four total players in the 2015 class, to allow three scholarships for 2016.
* But who? Pritzl, Stone, a small forward (Iverson or Billy Wampler) and an under-the-radar addition at combo guard or power forward. Reading the tea leaves, I am feeling good about the UW's chances for Stone currently, but schools like Connecticut, Kansas, and Kentucky loom large. The staff is selling Stone on being the centerpiece of the future and both his parents are involved in steadying his recruitment, which bodes well for Wisconsin. Could come down to UW and UConn. At SF, Wisconsin just needs to decide who it wants to offer.
* The number swells to five if Bo Ryan can get Josh Sharma and Stone. Sharma always has great things to say about UW. I think Connecticut and Wisconsin are out front, although he keeps stretching out the timeline for a decision. If interest from Stanford and Virginia turn into offers it could be tough.
Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!
For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.