MADISON — It was delivered as an innocent inquiry, but Jordan Taylor is smart enough to recognize a loaded question when he hears it.
When a reporter asked Wisconsin's point guard if he thinks Bo Ryan, Taylor's coach for the past three seasons, gets the respect he deserves nationally, the pause as Taylor decided how to answer was noticeable.
Taylor and his teammates will more often than not take the high road when asked about their coach, even if their opinions usually differ from those outside Big Ten country. Ryan has won four national championships but is not often mentioned among the top echelon of active coaches.
At Division-III UW-Platteville, his first coaching stop, he lost 17 games in his first season but then lost only a combined 17 in his final six seasons there. The Pioneers' court is named in his honor, but few people outside of Southwest Wisconsin know about it. His team went undefeated in the 1997-98 season, but most consider Indiana's 32-0 1975-76 season as the gold standard for college basketball perfection.
He has coached Wisconsin to 242 victories and only 90 losses, three conference championships and 10 NCAA tournament appearances. And when his team takes the court Thursday against eighth-seeded Butler in New Orleans, it will be his fourth Sweet 16 appearance in his 10 years on the Badgers' bench.
So after a second or two of deciding which path to take, Taylor delivered a perfectly political answer that catered to both sides of the argument.
"Yeah, I think so, (but) I don't really pay too much attention to who is saying (who) the best coaches are," Taylor said. "Anything we hear up here says he's one of the best coaches in the country."
Ryan has certainly earned the respect of his peers in the Big Ten. His teams have posted a 120-48 (71.4 percent) conference record, best in the league over the past 10 seasons, and haven't finished lower than fourth place. This year, the Badgers posted a winning conference record for the 11th straight season, which is the third-longest active streak among the six major conferences.
But when it comes to national perception, Ryan's swing offense is labeled "boring," his system is "outdated" and watching Wisconsin basketball is like "watching paint dry."
Ryan hears those comments but doesn't get mad or irritated by them. He prefers to say he'd rather educate the critics.
"I just don't understand when people always refer to 'Wisconsin basketball.' We score. We'll push," Ryan said after beating Kansas State on Saturday. "I'm sure there's a manual out there that says if you don't turn the ball over a lot, you get to the free-throw line, you make your free throws and you work hard on defense and you take good shots . . . if you want to call that 'Wisconsin basketball,' amen. That is us."
The system works. The Badgers have limited 18 of their 33 opponents to less than 60 points this season and are 153-16 (.905) under Ryan when keeping teams below 60. UW has finished among the nation's top 10 in scoring defense in six of the past eight seasons and currently rank second in the NCAA in offensive efficiency, averaging 1.19 points per possession.
But whenever there's a clunker of a performance, such as the 36-33 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, those negativities resurface with more proof that methodical basketball doesn't win national championships.
Maybe not yet, but the Badgers averaged 71.0 points per game in their two NCAA wins — nine of the Sweet 16 teams scored at least 70 points in each of their games — and limited Belmont, which ranked 11th in the nation at 80.4 points per game, to a season-low 58 points.
"The paper said today that 'problems aren't a stoplight,'" Ryan said. "If you run into some snags or things aren't going the way they should, they are guidelines. You don't stop. You just keep moving forward. That's all we did. We did what everybody else in the country should do when things just aren't quite exactly the way you like them.
"The fact that we had a chance to play again, that's pretty good."
A former college point guard at Wilkes College in eastern Pennsylvania, Ryan coaches every practice and game with a blue-collar, disciplined, get-after-it approach. There's no question his team embodies that toughness.
Senior All-America candidate Jon Leuer needed three stitches Saturday to close a gash on his head and played the rest of the game with his hair and jersey collar stained red. Senior Keaton Nankivil needed six stitches after an inadvertent elbow that made his eyebrow look like a scene from a horror movie.
Sophomore Mike Bruesewitz sprained his right knee in the Penn State loss but played his best games of the year last weekend in a bulky knee brace. Even Taylor, whom Ryan calls his "bulldog" on the court, showed resolve, shaking off a 2-of-16 shooting performance to come up with a key block against K-State star Jacob Pullen in the final seconds.
"They always say that a team is kind of a reflection of the coach," said Nankivil, still sporting a nasty shiner. "As much as it's Xs and Os, it's the toughness, the intangibles. Physically what people ended up seeing in that game, that kind of stuff goes on all the time.
"He just encourages us to fight through it and get the job done. When you can see it in terms of blood or whatever it might be, it brings it to the forefront."
Taylor took another brief pause when searching for the end thought to his question. Here he was, a lightly recruited point guard taking his coach's boring offense to New Orleans for a chance to win two games to go to the Final Four.
"We all have tremendous respect for him," Taylor said. "He's a great coach, he's a proven coach and he's done a lot of things over the years dating back to his days at Platteville that are successful."
Boring never felt so good.
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