WISCONSIN WAS on the brink of the Final Four, and Butch Ryan was on the brink of something else. The team coached by his son, Bo, was threatening to upset No. 1 seed North Carolina in the Elite Eight in Syracuse on March 27, 2005. It was late in the second half, and Butch was pacing, alone and distressed, on a stretch of the Carrier Dome's football turf beyond the temporary basketball bleachers, with no view of the court. I got up from press row during a timeout, spotted him—a frail 80-year-old man with wispy, white hair—and went over to ask if he was O.K.
"I get too nervous, son," he said. "I can't watch."
I had met Butch the previous day—at practice—and he was all ham and no nerves. When I told him it was my first NCAA tournament working for SI, he told me stories of his annual Final Four vacations with Bo. Butch boasted of his rep as the jester from Chester, Pa., and even acted out his most famous bit—dancing on the stage of a Bourbon Street bar in 1993 and impressing one M.C. Hammer. Butch did not mention his long history of turning into a wreck when his kid was coaching. There was the triple-overtime thriller during Bo's first season ('74--75) at Sun Valley High in Aston, Pa., that Butch missed because he was outside throwing up in the bushes. During Bo's reign at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville from '84 through '99, when he won four national championships, Butch would often disappear to pace in the lobby of Williams Fieldhouse, head down, hands clasped behind his back.
Wisconsin lost to the Tar Heels 88--82, and later that week Butch and Bo made yet another trip to the Final Four as spectators. They went to 37 in all, from 1976 in Philadelphia through 2013 in Atlanta. (Butch missed just one, New Orleans in '12.) He'd sometimes say to Bo about the Badgers, who won three Big Ten titles in the first seven years of Bo's tenure, but had yet to reach a Final Four, "We gotta get those boys here one of these years. Whaddya think?"
On Aug. 30, 2013, nine months after his wife, Louise, passed away, Butch died from complications from a broken hip. In his life he had been an improbable mentor. His mother passed away when he was nine, and he had grown up mostly abandoned by an alcoholic father. He was expelled from Catholic school and lied about his age to join the Navy at 16. After fighting in World War II, Butch worked as a pipe fitter and eventually founded a youth-sports league in Aston. The quarterback on his first football team was Bo. "I never got to be a kid," Butch used to say, "so I want to work with them and give them what I didn't have." Butch coached youth-league teams for nearly four decades and was the inspiration for Bo's career path. "I'm sort of in him when he's coaching," Butch once said. "I feel every pain that he does."
In the season that followed Butch's death, the Badgers made it to the brink again. The closing minutes of their Elite Eight game against Arizona in Los Angeles was so nerve-racking—Traevon Jackson missed a shot at the end of regulation, and a five-minute video review gave Arizona an extra possession with 2.3 seconds left in overtime—that Bo's youngest son, Matt, couldn't bear to watch. Matt's brother, Will, believed that Butch was playing a joke on them from the afterlife, where he could now watch without fear of having a heart attack. The Wildcats' Nick Johnson failed to get a shot off before the buzzer, and on what would have been Butch's 90th birthday—March 29, 2014—Bo finally brought the Badgers to the Final Four.
At AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the following week, Bo insisted that the stage wasn't new for him—he'd been to five Division III Final Fours—and he would prepare this team the same way he had Wisconsin-Platteville. Only the size of the venue and the level of scrutiny was different. But it was difficult not to notice that Ryan and the Badgers had entered a new phase. He had endured a great loss and then experienced a breakthrough. And although Wisconsin lost a Final Four heartbreaker to Kentucky, the Badgers bring so much back from a 30--8 team that they enter 2014--15 ranked No. 3, the highest preseason ranking in school history. Whaddya think? is no longer about cracking the Final Four. A national title is now realistic.
ON AN early-October evening in Madison during the first week of practice, 6'9" junior wing Sam Dekker and 6'8" sophomore power forward Nigel Hayes are waiting for orders of pollo parmigiana at Tutto Pasta Trattoria, a State Street institution. Hayes is explaining how he hated everything about the Badgers when the school began recruiting him in 2010. He grew up in Toledo an Ohio State fan and says, "I couldn't stand the way [Ryan's teams] played and how long they held the ball. They just annoyed me."
Wisconsin's pace remains unhurried; last season it ranked 342nd (of 351 teams) nationally in average time of possession (20.5 seconds). But players feel that Ryan's system has become more adaptable—in 2013--14 the Badgers were the only team to win games with final scores in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 100s, and they did that while ranking fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency. The team's dynamic has also loosened. Bo has always been equal parts stickler and ham, and his Badgers are now ruthlessly efficient and endearingly goofy.
They drill their offense so extensively that Ryan never uses whiteboard diagrams during games, but they also spend stretching sessions pondering Dekker's riddle of the day. (One from October: When do you go at red but stop at green?) No Badger can attempt an inefficient long two-pointer without getting scolded, yet Dekker and Hayes get away with calling their 66-year-old coach "Pops" or "Dad" to his face.
On July 13 the majority of the Badgers went to senior forward Frank Kaminsky's hometown of Lisle, Ill., to serve as instructors at a camp for third- through 12th-graders. The younger campers wanted to scrimmage against the collegians, who were unsure how to proceed. They huddled up and asked, "Do we go easy on them?" Sophomore forward Vitto Brown said, "No prisoners. No matter how young, how small, you treat them as if they were your enemy." So the Badgers ran a diamond-and-one press, kept stealing the ball and passing to the 7-foot Kaminsky, who would wait under the basket for one or two kids to catch up to him, and then dunk over them so aggressively that they spilled to the floor. Says Hayes, "They'd get up laughing like it was the best thing to ever happen to them." Kaminsky says it was "my way of giving back to the community."
Scoring this season won't be as easy as posterizing preteens, but the Badgers' offense is what makes them title contenders. Kentucky is rife with foul-drawing, rim-protecting talent, and Arizona will have the nation's stingiest defense, but Wisconsin will have the country's most efficient offense, according to SI's statistical projections. Kaminsky will be the focal point; he's projected to use 24.9% of the Badgers' possessions with an offensive rating of 125.9, which would make him the nation's most efficient high-volume scorer. Frank the Tank loves Madison life so much that he was in no rush to jump to the NBA after starring in the 2014 NCAA tournament, and Hayes describes Kaminsky as "methodically potent." Among players that Synergy Sports Technology logged with at least 100 post-up possessions last season, Kaminsky was the second-most-efficient scorer on the blocks, and he also made 37.8% of his threes. He can be a source of awe—he had 28 points and 11 rebounds in the Badgers' Elite Eight win over Arizona—and unintentional comedy: One of his exasperated interactions with Ryan in a timeout huddle last season inspired the coach to insert a clip of Napoleon Dynamite into the team's film-session reel the following day. "Frank's a killer, though," Dekker says. "If he keeps doing what he's been doing, he can talk however he wants."
Kaminsky's fellow frontcourt starters bring other dimensions to the offense. Hayes is the Big Ten's second-most-efficient returning player on isolation possessions, according to Synergy; he was also the Badgers' best free throw creator last season, drawing 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes played. And Dekker has grown two inches to 6'9" and added 15 pounds. (He now weighs 230.) He gives Wisconsin a wing who can make threes and overwhelm opposing small forwards when he attacks the basket. He played his way up the NBA draft boards at this summer's LeBron James Skills Academy, where he exhibited more confidence than he did in NCAA tournament appearances against Baylor and Arizona, and he says he's learned to stop second-guessing himself before making offensive moves.
Wisconsin is also the rare team on which nearly everyone can make threes. Hayes has extended his range during the off-season (he took no three-point shots in 2013--14), and now the Badgers' likely starting lineup will have five three-point options—and eight of their nine projected rotation players are three-point threats.
Having multiple skilled shooters results in ideal spacing to run Ryan's signature Swing offense—a continuity system that creates ball-side triangles complemented by weakside screening and cutting, that allows all players to shift between the perimeter and the blocks. The Swing is designed to pull defenders out of their comfort zones. The Badgers can either strike quickly or spend the greater part of the shot clock probing for a smart look, rotating the ball and reformulating triangles. When five highly skilled players are making the right reads—and mixing in the occasional wing ball screen—defending it is more difficult than solving a riddle. A riddle, at least, has a fixed solution. (You go on red and stop on green when you're eating a watermelon.)
WHEN AN Oct. 8 practice reaches the time slot allocated for post moves, every player goes through Ryan's established series of five skills. He calls out the names: the Moses (a power drop step), the Dominique (a shot fake and step under), the Bernie (a shoulder-fake turnaround), the Sikma (a reverse pivot and jump shot) and the McHale (a hook). Asked if he has considered using more recent references, Ryan says, "We thought about changing a couple, just so the modern guys [would know the names], and then I said, Nah, the heck with it." When Ryan talks about toughness, his anecdotes tend to be from his Chester, Pa., childhood in the 1950s and '60s. "I don't know how realistic it is that Bo was taking 20 charges in a game on the playground in Chester," senior captain Josh Gasser says, "but he claims he did it."
Ryan can be so overtly old-school that it obscures the fact that the Badgers are strategically progressive. He doesn't reference Synergy stats or even mention the Internet much, but he reacted to a turnover in a transition drill in practice by saying that a mistake like that "brings down our points per possession." By charting PPP in 10-possession stretches in practice, and having their performance evaluated on those terms, the Badgers grasp the value of every trip up the court. It's not a fluke that they've ranked in the top 20 in overall adjusted efficiency in seven out of the past eight seasons.
Ryan has also optimized his approach to the most valuable shot in the game. A 2012 study of college shooting data by statistician Ken Pomeroy concluded that there was little defenses could do to consistently affect opponents' three-point field goal percentages, and that the best way to consistently limit opponents' three-point production was to limit attempts. The Badgers' defense—a version of the Pack Line that prioritizes preventing rhythm threes in half-court and transition—has ranked in the lowest seven nationally in ratio of 3FGA/FGA allowed for each of the past three seasons. Wisconsin's opponents took just 25.3% of their shots from beyond the arc in '13--14, while the Badgers took 39.1% of their shots as threes. They almost always hold the advantage in long-rang attempts.
Wisconsin also understands the value of oversized shooters. A 2014 study of the past 14 seasons of NBA data by Justin Willard of GotBuckets.com concluded that three-point-shooting centers—due to their effect on spacing and pulling would-be rim protectors away from the hoop—have twice as much positive impact on offensive efficiency as three-point-shooting point guards. Three-point-shooting big men have two-thirds more positive impact than three-point-shooting perimeter players. Kaminsky attempted 98 long-range shots last season (making 37), and Dekker, playing mostly the four spot, took 129 (making 42).
When asked about the devastating conclusion of that Final Four game last April—Kentucky hit just two threes all game, but one was Aaron Harrison's improbable, go-ahead bomb over Gasser with 5.7 seconds left, and then Jackson missed a pull-up at the buzzer—Ryan brings up another study. "We broke down every last possession over the years where we had to score to tie it or win it," he says, "and we have some phenomenal record of, like, 68-point-something of the time being successful, and 90% [of the shots were] in an area we wanted." Jackson had previously hit two game-winners on similar attempts, and his pull-up was "absolutely" what Ryan wanted. That Jackson got hit on the right hand, had to alter his angle midair and awkwardly bank it? That was unfortunate. "Over time it's [gone] more our way than the other way," Ryan says. He knows that as long as the Badgers keep making the optimal choices, the odds will remain in their favor.
ODDS ARE that Butch wouldn't have analyzed Jackson's shot quite the same way. First, had he lived long enough to attend his 38th Final Four, Butch would've been too nervous to even see Jackson's shot, or much of anything that preceded it. The game was too close, the setting—nearly 80,000 fans in a 2.3-million-square-foot stadium—too overwhelming. Butch was more comfortable in small venues. Bo's oldest daughter, Megan, has a cherished image of her grandfather, from after Platteville won it all in 1991: He's beaming as he watches players pour cans of Bud Light over Bo's head. You could get away with that in D-III. If Bo wins Wisconsin's first national championship since 1941, on April 6, it will be in a football stadium in Indianapolis, where the NCAA's corporate police will confiscate any Bud Light and force the Badgers to party with an officially sponsored nonalcoholic beverage.
The old days, when Butch and Bo started traveling to Final Fours, were quaint. They'd pack three guys into a hotel room—their friend Jim Scheidler, who'd later become Butch's de facto caretaker, was relegated to a spot on the floor. Butch would fly out with meat and bread from LaSpada's in Chester and assemble hoagies in the room on the first night. They had a Thursday-night dinner with a cake for Butch's birthday and a guest list that expanded as Bo's coaching tree grew.
Every year produced a story. Butch's second Final Four was in Atlanta, in 1977. They were nobodies—just an assistant from Wisconsin, his pops and his friend—on a bus full of coaches headed from their hotel to The Omni, where Marquette and North Carolina would soon tip off for the national championship. It was raining, and the bus was stopped in traffic. Coaches complained to the driver about being late. They quieted down when someone on the bus started singing "A Rainy Night in Georgia." The singer was Butch. He stood up and willed some fellow passengers into singing along. He then informed them that it was time to get off the bus and walk to the arena. Plenty of them followed him out into the rain, toward the title game, trusting that there was not much farther to go.
One of Kaminsky's exasperated interactions with Ryan in a timeout huddle inspired the coach to insert a clip of Napoleon Dynamite into the team's film-session reel.
When five highly skilled players are switching positions and making the right reads, defending Ryan's Swing offense is more difficult than solving a riddle.
Percentage point improvement in his 3-PT shooting between his sophomore and junior seasons.
Projected '14--15 block rate for the senior, who led the Badgers in that category last year.
Points in the first half of the national semifinal game against Kentucky. UW's top reserve averaged 3.5 ppg for the season.
Career free throw percentage for the senior, fourth best in Wisconsin history.
Defensive rebounding percentage for the fifth-year senior.
Fouls drawn per 40 minutes last season, the highest rate on the team.
Photograph by John W. McDonough Sports Illustrated
FINALLY! Ryan's 13th trip to the Big Dance was a lucky one, thanks to the efforts of (from left) Jackson, Kaminsky and Dekker.
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SIX SHOOTERS Now that Hayes has extended his range, the Badgers' top rotation players are all three-point threats.
DAVID STLUKA (BUTCH)
NET RESULT Butch (with Bucky and Scheidler) spent decades as a Final Four spectator, but died before his son's breakthrough in 2014.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BO, KAMINSKY)
FORWARD PROGRESS Kaminsky (above) broke out during the 2014 Big Dance while Dekker (top left) boosted his confidence at summer skills camps.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DEKKER)
[See caption above]
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SWING SHIFTS Jackson is the maestro of the Badgers' constantly rotating offense, which is designed to keep defenders off balance.