"He always looking for that next opportunity to get better," said sophomore Sam Dekker. "One thing about coach, he hates to lose more than he likes to win. I think that's what makes him special. He's so competitive that he makes you want to win more and more."
That competitive fire was evident early for No.12 Wisconsin, as senior Ben Brust scored a career-high 29 points to help deliver a wire-to-wire 83-57 victory over Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. In the process, he put his head coach in elite company.
Duke's Mike Krzyzewski (982), Syracuse's Jim Boeheim (947), North Carolina's Roy Williams (723) and West Virginia's Bob Huggins (738).
"It's really special," said freshman Bronson Koenig, who committed to Ryan over Krzyzewski over Williams. "He's a great coach, obviously, and I've learned a lot from him."
Ryan's first victory came 30 years ago this November, an 83-76 victory by UW-Platteville over St. Ambrose. Since then Ryan has won 11 conference titles, four Division III national championships, laid the groundwork at UW-Milwaukee and turned Wisconsin into one of the Big Ten's perennial powers upon arriving in 2001.
Pretty impressive for a head coach that doesn't bring a clipboard to diagnosis plays in huddles.
"Not only do you have to have some longevity, but you have to win," said assistant coach Gary Close, who has been with Ryan the last 11 seasons. "I mean holy cow. In this league, that's off the charts."
Recruiting the right players for his unique system is one of the reasons why Ryan has helped Wisconsin develop one of the best home-court advantages in the country (a .903 winning percentage since 2001) and confidence in hostile environments – the win over the Gophers was the Badgers' 12th away from home this season, adding to their program record.
UW hasn't done it against cupcakes either. Virginia (15-2), Michigan (13-2), Iowa (13-4), Purdue (12-5) and Green Bay (12-3) went a combined home record of 65-16, and UW was responsible for five of those losses. And despite having only two players having previously played in Indianapolis, UW had no problem shooting 54.5 percent for the game.
"I think it starts with the coaching," said Dekker. "They never get uptight. They never get caught up in where we are. We're just doing the same thing every night, no matter where we are playing. It rubs off on us. Whether you are 18 years old or 23, we got guys that are willing to step up, not be afraid of the moment, grasp it by its horns and go for it."
The secret, according to his players, is that Ryan never changes. Whether Wisconsin was on its 16 game or eight game winning streak or in the midst of five losses in a six game stretch, Ryan approached every practice with the same tone and the same mindset: it's time to get better.
That philosophy was littered throughout UW's quarterfinal win.
Although they failed to finish at the rim, Minnesota first seven shots were attempts in the post, continuing a theme of dribble penetration in the paint that has been a weakness since the start of Big Ten play. A media timeout later, Wisconsin showed better post rotation and contested more shots, evident by blocks from Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Dekker at the rim.
"A team like Minnesota likes to get into the paint, likes to get deep in there, (and if) you can wall up the penetration (on) those drives, it makes it tougher on them," said Dekker, as Minnesota finished with only 22 points in the paint. "They have to kick it out, step back out and set themselves up again. Whenever you take out those easy angles for them and force tough shots, it's going to be tough for them to score."
After Minnesota used a 9-0 run to cut into Wisconsin's 12-point lead, Brust and Koenig made a 3-pointer on three of its next five possessions, helping UW re-establish its 12-point edge. And unlike so many times this season, UW continued building its lead after halftime to suffocate the Gophers.
"When we're moving the ball, making the extra pass, cutting and just doing the things that made us successful all year, we're doing good things," said Brust. "You never know who is going to step up."
Ryan also never talks about winning, although he's done a lot of it over the years. Ryan has averaged 23.3 wins over his 30 seasons and 24.4 wins coaching the Badgers, not to mention holding the top 10 spots in the UW record books for single-season wins. UW's 26th win is the tied for third most in school history.
Ryan's 29th-straight winning season has the mark of something special. But right now, it's all about next.
"I've been very fortunate," he said. "There's a lot of work by a lot of people that go into a number (like 700)."