The Big Ten basketball season looms in all its bruising possibilities and Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan is set to reveal his secret to success.
The No. 4 Badgers (12-0) rate as favorites along with No. 3 Ohio State (13-0) and No. 5 Michigan State (10-1). They have been contenders from the moment Ryan arrived in 2001 with his swing offense, rock-solid defense and don't-beat-ourselves approach.
How have they done it?
These Badgers have gone where no Ryan squad has gone before. It's the program's best start since the modern era began in 1946. Wisconsin did complete 15-0 seasons in 1912 and 1914, a quarter century before the NCAA tourney began, but those were simpler times, before jump shots, three-point arcs, bad Bob Knight sweaters and no-hands defensive rules.
But we digress.
Ryan is 303-113 in 13 seasons with the Badgers. He's 686-215 overall. He's won everywhere he's coached. What does that mean for this Big Ten season, which begins Tuesday? What is his secret?
“We take what the defense gives us,” he said.
Seriously. What's the secret?
“The way we play hasn't changed,” Ryan said. “We just try to get the best look we can. I'm going to record me saying that and the next time I'm asked that question, I'm going to push the button and it will say that we take what the defense gives us.”
So now you know.
Anyway, the Big Ten once again builds a strong case for America's best-conference status. Besides Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State (which was No. 1 until a loss to North Carolina), Iowa (10-2) is No. 22 with Illinois (10-2) and Michigan (7-4) flirting with top-25 status.
Eight Big Ten teams, including Purdue (10-3), Indiana (10-3) and Minnesota (10-2 with new coach Richard Pitino), have won at least 10 games.
Northwestern, with new coach Chris Collins, has the worst Big Ten record at 7-6.
So who's the best of the best?
Michigan State, which has battled multiple injuries, including those to Gary Harris and Travis Trice, has the best blend of talent and experience. It's coming off an impressive 92-78 win at Texas, with forward Adreian Payne earned Big Ten player of the week honors after scoring a career-high 33 points. Add Harris, Keith Appling, Branden Dawson and more, and the Spartans are loaded, plus have a coach in Tom Izzo who knows who to win championships.
Ohio State, meanwhile, rallied from eight points down in the final 50 seconds to stun Notre Dame 64-61 at New York City's Madison Square Garden. The Irish are the only team to stay within 10 points of the Buckeyes. They have an impressive 52-35 win at Marquette. Add guard Aaron Craft, perhaps America's best defensive player, along with Lenzelle Smith, LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams, and the Buckeyes are primed for a big March.
But in the end, the team you least want to face is Wisconsin. The Badgers won't wow with super recruiting, but that doesn't mean they lack talent or the will to use it. Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky are really good. And no coach better prepares his team than Ryan, who deflects high-ranking questions as easily as his defense throttles offenses.
“Everybody's going to come at us the same way. Everybody's going to want to -- even more so -- try to get a piece of the Badgers. There are a lot of sports on campus that have been in that position.
“I think the right things are being said in the locker room and the right directions being given out on the court with the players, with the upperclassmen, even though it's not a real old group at all. There are guys that have been around. They've knocked off in years past teams that were highly ranked. So they know highly ranked teams are just as vulnerable as anybody else.”
Where does this leave Purdue and Indiana?
In the middle of the pack.
Remember the early season buzz about whether the new defensive rules that limit hand checking and charges would boost scoring? It's working. Big Ten teams average 77.7 points. That's nearly five points more than they did last year in non-conference play.
If you like statistics, IU leads the nation in rebound margin, at plus 14. Michigan State ranks second in assists per game (19.0). Ohio State is third in three-point field goal defense (25.0 percent) and fewest fouls per game (15.3), fifth in scoring defense (55.9 points), sixth in scoring margin (19.3 points per game and No. 13 in field goal percentage defense (37.9 percent). Wisconsin is third in fewest turnovers per game (9.1). Iowa is third in scoring margin (23.2 points), fourth in defensive field goal percentage (36.7 percent) and fifth in scoring (88.7 points).
As far as individuals, Ohio State's Craft leads the Big Ten, and ranks No. 12 nationally, in total steals (31). Teammate Shannon Scott is No. 24 with 27 steals.
Indiana freshman Noah Vonleh leads the Big Ten in rebounding (9.5). A freshman hasn't done that since Ohio State's Greg Oden averaged 9.6 rebounds in 2007. Noah also has a conference-best seven double doubles.
Purdue center A.J. Hammons leads the Big Ten in blocked shots (3.8 a game). Penn State D.J. Newbill leads in scoring (18.9 points) while teammate Tim Frazier leads in assists (7.5). Iowa's Aaron White is the top overall shooter (67.8 percent) while Michigan's Nik Stauskas leads in three-point shooting (45.8 percent).
IU won last year's outright Big Ten title with a 14-4 record. The previous year Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan shared the championship with 13-5 records.
What does that mean for this year, especially given the conference might be the best it's ever been from top to bottom?
Expect plenty of drama, surprises and more.
Oh, one other thing. Wisconsin will take what opponents give all the way to a championship.
1 Wisconsin (12-0)
Players to watch: So. F Sam Dekker (14.3 points, 5.8 rebounds), Jr. F Frank Kaminsky (14.6 points, 5.8 rebounds)
2 Michigan State (10-1)
Player to watch: Sr. F Adreian Payne (18.1 points, 8.0 rebounds)
3 Ohio State (13-0)
Player to watch: Sr. G Aaron Craft (2.6 steals, 4.7 assists)
4 Illinois (10-2)
Player to watch: Jr. G Rayvonte Rice (17.4 points)
5 Michigan (7-4)
Player to watch: So. G Nik Stauskas (18.4 points, 45.8 3-point shooting)
6 Iowa (11-2)
Player to watch: Sr. G Roy Devyn Marble (15.3 points, 2.2 steals)
7 Purdue (10-3)
Player to watch: Sr. G Terone Johnson (14.0 points)
8 Indiana (10-3)
Player to watch: So. G Yogi Ferrell (16.8 points, 4.2 assists)
9 Minnesota (10-2)
Player to watch: Jr. G Andre Hollins (16.0 points)
10 Penn State (9-4)
Players to watch: Sr. G Tim Frazier (18.2 points, 7.5 assists), Jr. G D.J. Newbill (18.9 points, 6.2 rebounds)
11 Nebraska (8-3)
Player to watch: Jr. G Terran Pettway (16.8 points)
12 Northwestern (7-6)
Player to watch: Sr. G Drew Crawford (16.5 points, 7.9 rebounds)