CHICAGO – The deficit and embarrassment kept growing for the Wisconsin Badgers on Friday. But in a terrible first half that gave life and an 18-point lead to the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders, Bo Ryan never did give in to a cheap ploy to inspire his players.
He'd glance down his bench and see Brian Butch itching to play again, but Ryan refused to stoke any Willis Reed comparisons by sending Butch in, trusting instead that the second-seeded Badgers would begin a methodical march back into the ballgame – and into the second round on their own.
"He was ready, though," Ryan said of Butch, Wisconsin's junior forward and leading rebounder. "He kept giving me that look on the bench, that put-me-in look."
Butch never did see the court. Nineteen days after dislocating his right elbow in a loss at Ohio State on Feb. 25, he finally was cleared Friday to play again. Nevertheless, after Kammron Taylor and Alando Tucker combined for 38 second-half points, pushing the Badgers past No. 15 TAMUCC 76-63, Butch was the only eligible Wisconsin player who didn't appear in the game. "He wasn't going to be out there," Ryan said, and it made sense – no reason to take a chance, no reason to risk someone so essential.
"An extra day to rest is what my arm really needs," Butch said. "So it was perfect to get a win and rest."
Wisconsin is now 4-1 since Butch left the lineup – that single loss coming to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament's championship game – but there's no getting around this: For the Badgers to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, they'll have to have Butch's nightly 8.8 points and 5.9 rebounds, and the post presence his 6-foot-11, 245-pound frame provides.
No, Wisconsin isn't desperate without him, but it certainly isn't the same. After chewing them out at halftime Friday, Ryan even resorted to pumping up his players' egos in the postgame press conference, complimenting their toughness because they trailed only 27-19 at the break.
"With the start they had, they get 27 points for the half," he said. "Don't ever overlook defensively what we did because our guys earned that. Our guys earned the right to have a chance in that second half."
What they earned was a chance to get Butch back, to again become a team that can grind its way, smart possession by smart possession, toward a national championship. What they got was an opportunity. With Butch, the Badgers are a Final Four-caliber group. Without him, they were down 25-7 Friday to a team whose basketball program is only eight years old, which didn't go a long way to debunking the perception that they can't overcome his absence. Taylor had to score 14 straight Wisconsin points in one second-half stretch, and Tucker had to shake off 2-for-9 shooting in the first 20 minutes just so the Badgers could survive.
"These guys have done a tremendous job doing what they're doing," Butch said. "It's going to be nice to come back and be a part of this, but these guys have worked so hard. There's no quit in these guys. That's what you saw [Friday]. We started slow, but there have been games we've started slow before.
"You want to try to get in there at any point to help your team, but you also have to realize they've been working for two weeks without you. They've kind of got their own chemistry going. You need time to practice and get in that little groove they've started."
He'll have more time Saturday afternoon, during Wisconsin's preparation for Sunday's matchup against seventh-seeded UNLV – time to make sure his elbow and his frame of mind are back to normal. In this age of instant information, it figured that a video capturing the sequence that led to Butch's injury – Butch's leaping for a rebound and crashing to the floor after teammate Greg Stiemsma accidentally undercut him, the gruesome split-second sight of his right forearm dangling like a clock's tick-tock arm – would end up on YouTube sooner or later. And it has. Except Butch can't bring himself to watch it, and probably never will.
"I don't want any tentativeness in my mind or anything like that," he said. "I'll just kind of let that one go. I try to forget it as much I can."
Come back Sunday with a clean bill of health, help his team into the round of 16 and beyond, and he won't be the only one who'll have forgotten it.
This is the simplest solution for Brian Butch and the Wisconsin Badgers, the only one they've been waiting for.
- Brian Butch