ANAHEIM, Calif. – Ten minutes after their team's riveting Elite Eight victory over Arizona, all the cheesehead-wearing, red-and-white suspender-clad Wisconsin fans in the Honda Center could not wait any longer.
They descended from all corners of the arena and began chanting "Bo" in anticipation of the Wisconsin coach's long-awaited chance to climb the ladder and snip off a piece of net.
Finally, after every Wisconsin player, assistant coach and support staffer took their turn, Ryan made his ascent. He held the net in the air, grinned and pumped his fist, a muted but memorable celebration after a 64-63 victory over top-seeded Arizona that sent the second-seeded Badgers to their first Final Four since 2000 and enabled Ryan to shed the label of college basketball's best coach never to make one.
"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. We hope it continues."
If Ryan's response to his first Final Four was a bit subdued, perhaps it's because neither he nor his staff view it as the career validation outsiders do. Though only reaching one Elite Eight at Wisconsin prior to this season does gnaw at Ryan a bit, his assistants are quick to point out his legacy was already secure thanks to 700-plus career victories, 13 straight NCAA tournament bids and 13 straight Big Ten finishes of fourth or higher.
"When they asked me before LeBron [James] won world championships, I still said he was the greatest," Wisconsin assistant coach Lamont Paris said. "I didn't need him to win three or four to validate that. That's where I come down on Bo. I judge the body of work. He's obviously a great coach, period. I don't think the conversation should go beyond that."
There are two aspects of Saturday's upset that are meaningful to Ryan even if he believes the celebration of his first Final Four is a bit overblown.
First, it gets Wisconsin one victory closer to its first national championship since 1941. Second, the win was the ideal tribute to his late father Butch on what would have been his 90th birthday.
Every year since 1976, Ryan's birthday gift to his dad has been taking Butch on a father-son bonding trip to the Final Four. The retired pipe fitter and youth coach became a fixture every year in the lobby of the coaches' hotel, charming so many high-profile coaches with his wit and storytelling that Ryan soon became better known as Butch's son.
This Final Four is the first one since Butch died in August. Any emotion Ryan showed in the locker room or during postgame interviews had more to do with that than any personal satisfaction at making the Final Four.
"I think the thing that makes this so special is the whole thing with Butch," longtime Wisconsin assistant Greg Gard said. "How ironic that it's on his birthday.
"If Butch were here, he'd be in tears. He'd be crying. He'd be holding up some sign. Somebody had a sign way up in the second deck that said, 'This one's for Butch.' I don't know who that was but kudos to them."
Aside from an ugly midseason stretch when Wisconsin lost five of six, there have been signs that this year's Badgers might be the team to help Ryan shed the label of postseason underachiever.
Wisconsin boasts an efficient, multi-faceted offense featuring a wealth of weapons, from the creativity of Traveon Jackson, to the outside shooting of Ben Brust, to the back-to-the-basket scoring of Nigel Hayes, to the versatility of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Defense wasn't as much of a hallmark of this Wisconsin team as in previous years, but the Badgers have improved in that area over the course of the season and especially the NCAA tournament.
The formula for victory Saturday was a combination of smothering defense and a steady dose of Kaminsky.
The 7-foot junior continued his transformation from role player to star, delivering 28 points against the nation's No. 1 defense on a combination of pick-and-pop threes, low-post moves and forays to the basket. Arizona tried everyone from Kaleb Tarczewski, to Aaron Gordon, to switching every screen against Kaminsky but to no avail.
"Just wanted to do anything I could to make sure that we won that basketball game," Kaminsky said. "I personally wanted it really bad. I know every person on our team wanted it really bad. I was able to chip in my part, but it was a team effort [Saturday night]."
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Kaminsky's heroics wouldn't have been enough had Wisconsin not held Arizona to 23-of-59 shooting. The Wildcats had three chances to win in the final seconds of overtime but could not get the basket they needed.
T.J. McConnell missed a mid-range jump shot with 13 seconds left. Nick Johnson corralled the offensive rebound and attacked the rim but pushed off to create space against Josh Gasser and got called for an offensive foul with under four seconds to go. Then after Rondae Hollis-Jefferson forced a turnover, Johnson took too long to get his final shot off.
That set off a wild celebration on the Wisconsin bench, the type of mob scene befitting a program's first Final Four appearance in 14 years.
The Badgers were happy to make the Final Four. They were happy to still have a chance at a national championship. And most of all, they were happy for Ryan.
"It was awesome to see Coach Ryan so happy," Dekker said. "People say that he's never been to the Final Four. Well, here he is, another steppingstone of a great coaching career. I couldn't be more proud to help him get there."
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