Badger Ball: by Bo Ryan

No Big Ten team in the Tom Izzo era has been a better opponent than the Wisconsin Badgers.  Spartan Nation knows that, and Badger fans do too.  The history of the games and stakes played for as the rivalry has grown speak loudly for themselves.   Since William “Bo” Ryan (aka the “bad guy” to Spartan fans) took over in Mad Town, the rivalry has warmed from a simmer to a boil over more than a decade.  The more Spartan fans have seen of Wisconsin, the more they’ve generally come to loathe Bo Ryan, his style of play, his sideline “act,” and probably even Bucky Badger too. 

Ryan has gradually earned the Spartans respect while establishing his Badgers as a very tough team compete with.  A hallmark of Bo Ryan’s Badgers is Defense, and the 2012 team is no different.  A quick look at their national rankings (1st: PpG, 1st: 3 Pt. FG %, 1st: Assists, 2nd: FG %) paints a pretty red picture.  Those kinda numbers don’t happen by accident.

“It starts with an attitude,” Ryan explained to Spartan Nation.  “You have to have guys who say “okay, this is what we’ve gotta do in order to have a chance, knowing the Offensive end can get scary at times, good and bad.”  Ryan’s demand to defend, no matter what’s happening elsewhere, has kept his 11 Badger teams in position to win more than 70% of their conference games.  “All the things that everybody talks about (Defensively), we talk about the same things…But to have guys make that commitment, and to have that understanding gives you a chance.” 

Rather than play up a rivalry with the Spartans (or Gophers perhaps), Ryan told Spartan Nation his preparation never wavers.  After more than 40 years Coaching, Ryan claims he doesn’t know what could really be done too differently from game to game, though conceding there are nuances with certain teams on the schedule. 

That approach appears a polar opposite of the Spartans’ nature.  Tom Izzo has never been afraid to acknowledge that some games mean more than others.  And on the football side of things as an example, Mark Dantonio has essentially admitted that they all count one, but some mean more than others.  “There’s never been, in my coaching career, a different emphasis on a team,” Ryan explained.  “I let all that other conversation stuff take place by other people, it doesn’t affect what we do.”

While Ryan’s record is quite hard to argue with, his approach to the relative importance of each game could at least be up for debate.  His Badgers have been stunned a time or two in tournament play.  They’ve looked flat more than once, and have been rudely ejected well before their time from more than a few NCAA Tournament occasions. 

Some may argue that approaching each game the same can fail to inspire the urgency needed when you get to “one and done time.”  Without training that urgency muscle a few times during the year, it might not be there when it’s needed most.  And a consensus should be reached that Bo Ryan has had Final Four talent in the past.  He’s had at least two favorable draws to go along with favorable seeds, but he’s yet get Wisconsin back to the game’s biggest stage. 

Badger Ball under Bo Ryan and the continuing contrast with Michigan St. under Tom Izzo remains a fascination to the entire Big Ten.  Thursday night is but the next chapter in the top Basketball rivalry of the Tom Izzo era.  It is also once again, a critical game in the Big Ten race.

The Nix of Time

As his waistline retreats, his game continues to expand.  Though the Junior year version of Derrick Nix looks hardly like the previous underclass version, his coming of age is perhaps a bit of a surprise.  “I think he’s changed his whole personality, and that’s been fun to watch,” Tom Izzo recently told Spartan Nation.

Nix came to MSU with a good pair of feet, a decent pair of hands, and some low post savvy the Spartans haven’t seen in a while.  But as good as he’s been at times this year, Izzo believes he’s got another gear to shift into.  “I think this kid could really take another huge step, not a baby step, because he’s shooting the ball better from 15-feet (and) he’s got such a good understanding of the game, probably second (only) to Draymond.”

Nix’s leap to that next level will require a little more fine tuning, however, in a few areas he’s already progressed in.  “Number one, we’ve gotta get him making those short shots because he does make them in practice and he’s missed a couple now that have been sort of critical because we’re getting the ball into him there more,” Izzo explained. 

He also wants to see Nix come back next fall “maybe another 10-12 pounds” lighter to go along with a summer of low post growth.  Because of his quick feet, good hands, and Basketball IQ, Nix can make the “upperclassmen jump” that Spartan Nation has seen before from the likes of Goran Suton.  

That jump should become a reality with a continuing dedication to strength and conditioning, a commitment to being strong with the ball down low, and a focus on building his offensive repertoire from the rim out to his perimeter limits.  If he can pull it all off, it will be quite the “Nixtreme Makeover.”

Potential can be a Payne

Adreian Payne’s potential and skills haven’t been in question for while.  John Calipari, Tom Izzo, and other top College Coaches wouldn’t have made such an effort to recruit him if they didn’t see an eventual difference maker.  But after a Freshmen year slowed by injury and inexperience, some began to wonder if Payne’s great potential might go to poof.  Now after playing his best on the Big Ten’s season’s biggest stage, Payne’s doubters may have to take a second look.

“That’s the maturation process that you’re looking for,” Tom Izzo told Spartan Nation.  “Whenever your Sophomore year comes, you’re just learning how to do those things (needed to become a force).”  Izzo explained that Payne’s game is starting to “scratch the surface,” and that he might want to pretend every opponent is Ohio St. given his success against his home state Buckeyes thus far.  But if Payne wants to make Saturday night’s performance a platform rather than a pinnacle, he’s got a lot of work to do moving forward.

“Offensively he’s got all the skills,” Izzo admitted.  “(But ) he’s gotta get more consistent at posting a little bit deeper, being more physical.”  That includes getting stronger with the ball, using his body to leverage better position in the post, and developing the kind of nose for the ball that the best College big men seem to have. 

Payne’s natural frame is again an example that size doesn’t instantly equate into being a force down low (think Paul Davis, for example).  “I don’t’ think anyone in our program would think of Adreian as a physical player, he’s gotta get more physical, and rebound a little better too,” Izzo reiterated.  Though he acknowledges that Payne is a work in progress, his Coach sees signs that strides towards his big potential are being made.  “He’s made decent progress…it’s consistency you hope from as a Sophomore.” 

If the momentum Payne carries from the Ohio St. game can lead to that consistency from here, all of that 6 ’10 potential  can be realized.  But it’s up to Adreian Payne, more than anyone else, to realize that only he can distinguish that great potential from actually becoming a great College Basketball player.

The Spot up 3:  Three Quick College Basketball Points to Dribble Around

1.      If it will make scheduling any easier, it might be time to open up odd nights (like Friday and Monday) for Big Ten play.  The overall College Basketball product continues to be on a decline, and it’s time to start doing the right thing for the kids, Officials, Coaches, and fans .   

2.      In the Press Room of Madison Square Garden after Duke pulled away from MSU in the 2nd Half, Tom Izzo told us his team would be better for those first two defeats.  Not only is that the case, but this team has come further in that time than most probably realize.

3.      It’s great to see Bob Knight doing Color Commentary for Big 12 games on ESPN.  Anytime he’s on the telecast, you might as well get out a notebook to take notes on the game of Basketball.  He’s the only guy in the business who can pull the average fan in to pay attention to a game between teams they don’t care about, but it’s well past time that he starts doing more Big Ten games. 

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