A former colleague of mine made an interesting point following the University of Wisconsin’s loss to Duke University in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball national championship in Indianapolis: history will note that Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski won his fifth national title, moving him into second all-time behind UCLA legend John Wooden (10) and ahead of Kentucky icon Adolph Rupp.
The Badgers, for as great as they were, for as historic as their season was in the state of Wisconsin and in Madison, they are a mere footnote in the history of college basketball.
This is true.
What’s interesting is that I don’t know if anyone outside of Durham, North Carolina would say the Blue Devils’ eight scholarship players were the better team Monday night.
Sure, their freshmen were better. But the Badgers had the consensus national player of the year and another first round NBA draft pick of their own on the court, as well as two sophomores in Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, who, should they continue to develop, will also play professional basketball.
No, the difference to me in why the Blue Devils won by two possessions – five points – is because Krzyzewski was coaching in his ninth NCAA championship game (ninth!) at the Division I level and Bo Ryan was coaching in his first.
And that experience, or lack thereof on Ryan’s part, made the world of difference down the stretch.
Yes, this was Ryan’s second straight Final Four.
Yes, he won four Division III titles at UW-Platteville in the 1990s – but let’s be honest – none of that really compares to the stage he was on Monday night.
And as the game changed with the referee’s whistles, and basketball games always do, it’s up to the coaches to pull the strings on those puppets in black and white. Early in his career at Duke, Krzyzewski would rage at the treatment Dean Smith and his North Carolina Tar Heels received.
Now, he is The King Puppeteer. Everyone knows this. He helped turn the tide in the second half.
Ryan’s job, then, is to work not just as hard – when let’s face it, his place in the game doesn’t quite measure up to Krzyzewski’s – but rally his team to a solution.
The Badgers did well enough by the refs to push Jahlil Okafor to the bench, and get fellow big man Justise Winslow to back off a bit defensively.
But the problem was, in my view, was that Ryan didn’t tweak his offense enough to take advantage of the situation.
And in basketball, that matters just as much at talking to a ref going into every time out.
Here’s what I mean: Once Okafor was sidelined and it became clear it was going to be for a long stretch, each half court set the Badgers ran should’ve started with Frank Kaminsky in the post, on an undersized and overmatched opponent. Every. Set.
Yes, that’s a departure from what Wisconsin "does" – but in the ultimate game the object is to win. And to win, Ryan had to let his best player do his thing. The college shot clock is long enough to let Kaminsky operate. Either he wins down low, and gets a great shot or a draws more fouls. Or, he forces more aggressive double teams, which further opens up the cutting lanes and the 3-point line.
This was not happening, and did not happen. I couldn’t understand it.
I couldn’t help but think back to when the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Chicago Bulls in a tightly contested game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center last week, when Bucks coach Jason Kidd scrapped his entire offense at times to run isolations for 6-foot, 6-inch point guard Michael Carter-Williams when Bulls coach Tom Thibedeau refused to switch off or help 6-foot guard Aaron Brooks.
So, Kidd changed. He put his other four players on the other side of the court and let Carter-Williams win. Which helped the Bucks win.
Sometimes, as a coach, you just have to do those things. And in my mind, if Ryan would’ve reacted in that way, then the refs would’ve reacted accordingly as well. Kaminsky would be drawing more fouls inside. The Duke guards, who destroyed Wisconsin down the stretch, would’ve been more prone to being called for hand checks and reaching.
Because the player of the year would’ve been the aggressor, making things happen.
Yes, Krzyzewski worked the refs, but he also adjusted with his post players in foul trouble. He called high ball screen after high ball screen, and let his guards loose. He went with the flow of the game as it was changing, and adjusted.
After the game, Ryan was a bit salty about the whole thing, which makes some sense considering how his Badgers went from being whistled twice in the first half to a baker’s dozen in the second.
He was asked if he took issue with the officiating.
"Have you ever watched me during a game? I don't think this was any different. No, we have these things that we practice, okay? We practice in our practices where if an offensive player jumps into you, we always call it on the offensive player. It's just what we do. So there were some situations where obviously our guys felt they were in position. I'm sure they felt they were in the rights. Both teams are always going to feel that there's a question or two. So it's just the way the game's played. But I've been with these guys a long time, and I've watched a lot of basketball. Sometimes games are played differently, and you have to go with the flow."
Then, in an answer about his seniors, he threw in the following at the end:
"Sometimes hands are allowed more than others. You know how the game goes. Like I said before, you always got to adjust."
Go with the flow. Adjust.
Afterward, it was probably easy to say. Unfortunately in the moment, I didn’t see it, at least not on the Wisconsin bench.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.