Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Anonymity suits UK's opponent

Wisconsin likes being under radar

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It's a feel-good story one would almost feel compelled - since it's Wisconsin - to call "cheesy:"

Guy spends his whole career coaching in Wisconsin. Takes over at the big state school. Wins a surprise Big 10 title in his first season with a short-handed squad, then repeats the feat in his second year. Does it with three starters - and 10 players overall - from Wisconsin.

Yet it has happened for Bo Ryan and the Badgers.

"What I like is how people have responded and how appreciative they are of the way the guys play," Ryan said. "It's all good for the state of Wisconsin, and we ought to enjoy it while it lasts."

That's not because his Badgers (24-7), a double-digit underdog to top-ranked Kentucky (31-3) in Thursday's Midwest Regional semifinal, expect to lay down for the Wildcats.

On the contrary, this team possesses enough skill and acumen to keep UK's coaches on edge.

Raise your hand if you knew Ryan has the highest career winning percentage (.776, 426-123) of any active Division I coach with at least 15 years' experience. Keep it raised if you knew Wisconsin has won more NCAA Tournament games the past four years, seven, than all but five schools: Maryland (13), Duke (12), Michigan State (12), Arizona (9) and Kansas (9).

Raise it if you knew all five Badger starters average double figures in scoring. Again if you knew Wisconsin ranks second in the country in fewest turnovers per game (10.3). And again for UW allowing opponents just 12.3 free-throw attempts per game, fewest in the nation. And for ranking fourth in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 59.2 points per game.

"They have a lot of good weapons," UK coach Tubby Smith said. "They like to spread the ball and find mismatches."

When Wisconsin reached the Final Four in 2000 as a No. 8 seed, it seemed a shocking aberration. It wouldn't now.

UW has been to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments, after never previously having been twice in a row. It has won a school-record 24 games this season, and its 95 victories the past five years constitutes the winningest period in school history.

Add to it that the Badgers' back-to-back Big 10 titles marked the first time they'd done that since 1923-24. And that their comeback from a 13-point deficit with 3:36 remaining Saturday against Tulsa, capped by Freddie Owens' game-winning 3-pointer with one second left, was the greatest comeback in school history.

"There is a belief among the guys, a never-say-die attitude," senior guard Kirk Penney said.

Penney, a two-time first team all-Big 10 honoree, is this team's only household name. The New Zealand native averages 16.1 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

Wisconsin plays a four-guard offense, with only 6-foot-8 forward Mike Wilkinson standing taller than 6-5. It prefers a slower tempo, though its average of 70.7 points per game is actually its highest in nine years.

"In the two years here, we have not held the ball," Ryan said. "It is just what you need to do to get a good shot."

Ryan began his coaching career as a UW assistant. His first game, in fact, was at the opening of Rupp Arena on Nov. 27, 1976. UK won 72-64, and the teams haven't met since.

After eight seasons, Ryan took the top spot at Division III UW-Platteville and won four national championships in 15 years.

He then spent two seasons at UW-Milwaukee before taking over at UW.

Last season, with just 10 scholarship players, he tied for the league title. This winter, UW won it outright for the first time since 1947.

"To say that two conference championships wasn't further ahead than what anybody expected . . . those were our goals," Ryan said. "Everything past that is, 'OK, let's go for the ride (in the NCAAs).'  "

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