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MADISON - The first win of the Bo Ryan coaching era at Wisconsin technically came against Hawaii-Hilo in the Big Island Invitational on November 23, 2001. If you ask his assistants at the time, the real first win came 29 days later.
The Badgers and their 4-6 record weren’t given much of a chance against No.14 Marquette, but it could be argued that the results that Saturday at the Kohl Center set the tone for all the wins and success that has followed.
“It helped sustain and establish the foundation of the program and what we wanted to do here offensively and defensively,” said associate head coach Greg Gard, who has coached with Ryan at three different stops since 1993. “Whenever you are implementing a new system, there’s always going to be questioning whether it will work or not when you don’t have immediate success.”
Wisconsin’s diminished roster was struggling to learn Ryan’s swing offense and the coaching staff’s new philosophy, not to mention dealing with a rugged stretch of travel. The Badgers played their first five games away from home, flying from Las Vegas to Hilo, Hawaii, to Atlanta in a span of 12 days.
“I remember we were wearing some really hot sweaters for that trip because we didn’t take suits,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who was an assistant at UW for Ryan’s first two seasons. “I (also) remember coach’s system starting to take hold and we’re running the swing.”
Wisconsin squeaked out wins against non-power-six opponents, winning against Hawaii-Hilo, Green Bay, Ohio and Furman by an average of only 10.8 points, while Marquette was 10-0 and had beaten three straight power-six schools to win the Great Alaskan Shootout.
Bennett wouldn’t call Wisconsin’s 86-73 win over the Golden Eagles December 22 a “coming out party” for Ryan, but wasn’t afraid to call a spade a spade.
“We really took it to them, and I remember hurting them in a bunch different ways,” Bennett said. “I thought that was a significant statement of how this program was going to be continually established and how we’re going to play.”
Winning his 300th game in his 13th season at Wisconsin, Ryan is averaging 24.3 wins in his first 12 seasons. Before Ryan, the program record for wins in the season was 22, dating back to 1898.
“To be able to do that, maintain that and stay at a high level consistently is hard to do,” said Gard. “Obviously it’s a tribute to him, his leadership, his expectations and where he sets the bar from the top down. Secondly, we’ve had very good players who understood what we want, what it takes to be successful, bought in and got better as their careers went on.
“That combination doesn’t guarantee success, but it gives you a greater probability to have success.”
Fifteen days short of the 12-year anniversary of that victory, Ryan goes for win number 301 and No.8 Wisconsin looks to move to 10-0 for only the second time in program history when the Badgers host the Golden Eagles Saturday afternoon.
Ryan twice hit milestones against Marquette, winning number 100 on December 10, 2005, and number 200 on December 12, 2009. He achieved win No. 300 (in his 413th game at UW) in very Ryanesque fashion, as Wisconsin’s stingy defensive effort held Virginia to less than 24 percent shooting and only 38 points, its fewest in the shot-clock era.
Ryan became the ninth coach to win 300 games at a Big Ten school, and his .726 winning percentage is second to only former Indiana coach Bob Knight’s .734 percentage.
Ryan also won 353 games at UW-Platteville, but did so by executing a different style, which included full-court traps.
“Not too many coaches can get to (300),” said junior point guard Traevon Jackson. “I am glad to be that team to help him get there. I am just proud to be a part of it, part of this team.”
Ryan, who turns 66 later this month, is approaching another major milestone being just 17 wins away from hitting 700 wins over his 30-year coaching career. The earliest Ryan could accomplish that if Feb.17 at Michigan.
If that victory happens, it will likely be a game that features solid defense, ball security and good patience within the offense. That’s been the basis for a lot of success for the Wisconsin program; that success dates back to that first Marquette victory, which is still a program badge of honor.
“A lot of highlights are still on our teaching clips to teach our younger guys,” said Gard. “It was a great team win.”