ANAHEIM, Calif. — One of them would bury the label forever, never again to be lumped in with the lot of great coaches with an asterisk after their names.
Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan and Arizona’s Sean Miller came into Saturday night’s West Regional Final at the Honda Center high on the short list of coaches considered “The Best” without a Final Four on their resume. As much as they disagreed with the premise, as much as they claimed not to judge themselves by that standard, the label wouldn’t go away, stuck to them like an annoying wad of bubble gum on the bottom of their polished black shoes.
Ryan was the one who finally scraped it clean Saturday night, care of a 64-63 overtime victory by the second-seeded Badgers that earned them a trip to play Kentucky or Michigan in Dallas next weekend, the school’s first trip to the Final Four since 2000.
Four previous times Ryan’s teams fell in the Sweet 16, and in 2005 the Badgers lost in the Elite 8. But they avoided that fate Saturday because Arizona’s Nick Johnson failed to get a shot off in the final 2.3 seconds off overtime and because Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky pivoted and pivoted, floated and chucked shots of seemingly all types, making enough to tally 28 points to go with his 11 rebounds.
“I’m extremely proud,” Ryan said. “It’s always about the players and what they went through to get to this point and to be able to feel the way they do now. So it should always be about the players, but I’m going to get one comment in: Today would have been my dad’s 90th birthday.”
Yes, Ryan’s breakthrough came, fittingly, on the birthdate of the late Butch Ryan, who died last August. Butch was a former teacher, coach and World War II veteran, and he and Bo were extremely close. For decades, the affable Butch accompanied Bo to the Final Four, taking the sting out of another season by the Badgers that fell short of the national semifinals with his jokes and his antics.
For Wisconsin and Ryan to finally head to the Final Four as a team the year after Butch’s passing, “It was like this was orchestrated by Butch,” Wisconsin assistant Greg Gard said. Now, instead of mourning the absence of his father at event they always attended together, Ryan will be pleasantly distracted by the task of coaching his team.
“What makes this so special is this whole thing with Butch,” Gard said. “How ironic this happens on his birthday.”
Said Ryan: “[My father] was always about the kids that he helped mentor growing up, and you know, that’s why I do it, to see the faces of these [players], to see the genuine excitement.”
Games are ultimately decided by players, but Saturday’s matchup was such a titanic meeting between two coaches so well respected, and their teams were so well prepared, that it was a virtual certainty that no team would pull away, that the game would be decided by a handful of plays at the end.
An odd shot by Kaminsky with 2:21 remaining in overtime, a sort of pivot, pivot, pivot floater over Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski, gave Wisconsin a 61-59 lead. Then two possessions later, Kaminsky tipped in a miss by Traevon Jackson to push the lead to three, 64-61.
“I was talking to Tarczewski during the game and I said to him, ‘Isn’t it tough to guard Frank?'” Wisconsin guard Sam Dekker said. “Tarczewski said he’d never guarded anyone like him … Frank is just awkward. He just makes it awkward for people. That shot in overtime [over Tarczewski], it looked like he he coughed it up but that was just Frank getting a weird shot to go in.”
Miller said he wouldn’t have done anything different to defend Kaminsky, which is good, as that will leave one less “what if” for him and Wildcats fans to ponder during the offseason. What if Arizona hadn’t lost Brandon Ashley, the talented, 6-foot-8 sophomore forward who tore a ligament in his right foot at the start of February? With him, Arizona reeled off 21 victories to start the season and looked like the best team in the country, owning the perfect blend of depth, strength and athleticism in the frontcourt to go with a bevy of talented guards. His absence forced Arizona to play a three-guard lineup more often, and it was easy to imagine how the bigger lineup with Ashley would have helped against Kaminsky.
What if star freshman Aaron Gordon departs after this season, a virtual certainty? The Wildcats bring in the No. 1 small forward in the country, Victor Johnson from Fullerton, Calif., but he is no Gordon. Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, might also decide to declare for the draft.
Pulled together, those questions create the greatest “what if” of all, which is: What if this was Arizona’s best chance for a while to get to the Final Four?
Said Miller: “In this tournament, when you lose, it is like a car crashes. You are just done.”
While another car drives on, to the Final Four, to the event where Bo and Butch have built memories on top of memories. One of those moments occurred at the 1994 Final Four in Charlotte, when Bo was still coaching Division III Wisconsin-Platteville. Butch arrived in his small Winnebago and, upon seeing all the other RVs with flags of schools playing in the Final Four, he took his orange Wisconsin-Platteville basketball sweatshirt, tied the sleeves to a pole, and flew it as a flag for all to see.
“If he was here he’d been in tears. He’d be crying,” Gard said of Butch. “He’d be just like everyone else, dancing, hoping around and saying ‘Let’s go win two more.'”
Bo was slightly less expressive in his public comments and with his players, though he did have a few tender moments. “He gave me a huge hug, said, ‘Come here, Sammie,'” Dekker said. “He may be hard on us and get on us, but he cares for us. He embraced me tight and said, ‘I’m a proud of you and let’s get to Dallas.'”
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