MADISON, Wis. (AP) – For once, the 12th-ranked Badgers are following the lead of another team in the University of Wisconsin system.
Coach Bo Ryan doesn’t mind that one of his protégés, Milwaukee’s Rob Jeter, officially clinched a trip to the NCAA tournament first this season. And certainly not after the Panthers’ meteoric rise from Horizon League afterthought to conference tournament champion.
The Badgers, a lock for the NCAAs, are hardly an afterthought. Still, they wouldn’t mind mimicking Milwaukee and winning their own conference tournament this week in the Big Ten, which would likely put Wisconsin (25-6) back in the discussion for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.
“For players to say they want to win a championship, they all ought to be saying it. So saying it, what does that do? That’s air coming out, making sound,” Ryan said Wednesday. “It’s what you do on the floor.”
Milwaukee (21-13) cemented its first trip to the NCAAs since 2006 after beating Wright State 69-63 on Tuesday night to win the Horizon tournament. The city of Milwaukee – let alone the campus – is still buzzing a day later.
The Panthers went from being picked last in the league preseason poll to being the last team in the conference standing in March. Six-foot-9 forward Kyle Kelm led the way with 20 points and nine rebounds against Wright State.
“Defense and rebounding are what I consider tough. We’d been getting outrebounded all year,” Kelm said after the game. “We knew coming into this tournament that there were some things we were going to have to pick up.”
Sounds a lot like something a Badger would say.
“We all battled through and persevered,” Jeter said. “That league championship is for everyone who believed in us.”
Include Ryan in that bunch. Jeter played for Ryan at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville. Ten of Jeter’s 11 years as an assistant were under Ryan, including Ryan’s own stint at Milwaukee for a couple years before moving to the Wisconsin’s larger campus in Madison.
Jeter took the Milwaukee head-coaching job in 2005. On Wednesday, Ryan sounded like a proud father.
“They make a big deal about being predicted to finish somewhere, and then exceeding expectations,” Ryan said. “Rob is not the kind of guy that worried about too much where they had picked them, but he knew he had a lot of work.”
Ryan said he thinks the NCAA may be putting less importance on keeping teams who have faced each other already in a season from having a rematch in a first game of the NCAAs. Ryan doesn’t care either way, though there’s a more pressing matter on his agenda.
“The NCAA tournament is the week after this week, so we’ll take care of the Big Ten tournament,” Ryan said.
Wisconsin heads to Indianapolis with a first-round bye as a No. 2 seed. They were riding an eight-game winning streak until falling in the regular-season finale at upstart Nebraska 77-68. Freshman Nigel Hayes, the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year, said working on defense was a top priority this week after the Cornhuskers shot 52 percent, and 50 percent from 3-point range.
Of course, Wisconsin would love to win the Big Ten. But the Badgers are headed to a 16th straight NCAA tourney appearance regardless of what happens in Indianapolis, and they may even get to play their first two games in the NCAAs close to home in Milwaukee at the Bradley Center.
But scrapping for a bid like the Panthers? That’s something that really impresses Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser, a Port Washington native who was recruited by Jeter and has played summer ball with guys on Panthers roster.
“It’s the Bo Ryan connections,” Gasser said. “It’s great to see programs like that get rewarded for their hard work.”
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