- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

Think Wisconsin basketball and it's likely a plodding, methodical style of play comes to mind. The primary example: An unsightly NCAA Final Four game two seasons ago in which the Badgers trailed Michigan State 19-17 at halftime.
"Boring, slowdown, nobody-wants-to-watch-type [stuff]," Wisconsin guard Travon Davis called it yesterday.
But hold on. Gone in Madison are the heavy-handed ways of veteran coach Dick Bennett, who resigned the day after his team beat Maryland in November 2000. Enter Bo Ryan, an extremely successful former Division III coach who has altered a once-restrictive program and allows his players more freedom.
The Terrapins will get a firsthand peek at Wisconsin's new look today when the teams meet in an East Region second-round game at MCI Center. The Badgers don't resemble an early-'90s Loyola Marymount team, but they're not Princeton either.
In his first season at Wisconsin after two at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and 15 with four Division III national titles at Wisconsin-Platteville, Ryan has loosened the reins. From the ambiance in the locker room to players' roles in the halfcourt offense, Ryan has made a lot of changes, and his Badgers responded by winning their first Big Ten regular-season title in 55 years and making another trip to the NCAAs.
"It's been a real blessing," Davis said of Ryan's arrival. "We've expanded our game a little bit, [doing] things that we weren't expected to do without disappointing anybody in the past. I think we're a lot freer, a lot looser on the court, and it has helped us become a better team in critical situations."
Said Ryan: "You have to be yourself, and you have to let [players] know you are committed to this thing, too. … It's a two-way street."
In public, Ryan is a laid-back, witty character; in fact, in his first meeting with his team, he helped break the ice by cracking several one-liners. He'll still try to humor his players with jokes, and Davis said Ryan sometimes breaks out lines from old movies and passes them off as his own. Every now and then, they'll catch him using one that has been recycled.
On the court, it's tough to catch Wisconsin napping defensively; the Badgers play the same, disciplined style they featured under Bennett (and interim coach Brad Soderberg last season). But Ryan has installed an offense that allows his players to perform different roles guards sometimes post up, and forwards pop out to shoot 3-pointers. Davis calls it an "equal opportunity offense."
Of course, it helps to have players who are versatile like swingman Kirk Penney and forward Charlie Wills. The Badgers ranked just ninth of 11 Big Ten teams in offense this season (66.9 points), but they scored 80 in Friday night's first-round defeat of St. John's.
Penney is a native New Zealander who was recruited to Wisconsin three years ago by Bennett's son, Tony, now a Badgers assistant, who was playing professionally in the country at the time; the 6-foot-5 swingman leads the Badgers in scoring at 15.1 points. Freshman guard Devin Harris averages 12.4, and 5-10 point guard Davis runs the show and effectively penetrates and distributes.
"They still do a lot of the same things [as last season]," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "They're still a real good screening team, and they have a lot of people shoot 3s."
As a No.8 seed playing No.1 Maryland, Wisconsin finds itself in a familiar situation. Two seasons ago, the eighth-seeded Badgers upset top-seeded Arizona in the second round and made a surprising run that ended with a loss to eventual champion Michigan State in the Final Four. Penney, Wills and Davis all acknowledged the present situation's similarity to 2000 but dismissed it as a real source of experience.
"Those are two separate teams with two separate identities," Wills said. "If there's any comparison, there's that 'no pressure' comparison I think we had two years ago. That first game gets that load off our shoulders, and now we can let loose and play."


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