It’s rare that you see a headline as straight-from-the-initial-pitch perfect as: “Wisconsin: The Most Boring Team in America.” When I saw that headline at Grantland yesterday I strapped myself in for what I assumed would be a rollicking good first-person gutting of the Badgers on purely subjective and aesthetic grounds.
Because of course there’s nothing wrong with gutting the Badgers or any other team that drives your eyeballs crazy on purely subjective and aesthetic grounds. If you’re faithfully reporting the unmediated distaste of your senses, no red-clad cheese-lover from Madison can gainsay that. Your senses and their distastes are sovereign in such matters.
And indeed for its first few paragraphs “The Most Boring Team in America” met my expectations. Bo Ryan looks like a guy who could be cast as the Devil in a movie? Fine. He certainly has a more angular look than your more rounded avuncular types like Buzz Williams or Rick Majerus. In fact I suppose Ryan, Mike Krzyzewski, and (duh) Frank Martin could all do well visually in that particular role.
Now, Ryan is the Devil in college basketball stylistic terms?
You know that moment at a wedding reception where you just know the best man’s about to take a fatal misstep in his toast?…
I think he might be a threat to ruin the game.
This is where I stare at my napkin and hope the DJ chimes in with some hurry-up music. Very loud hurry-up music.
Let’s agree to call this the Taylor Branch fallacy, the misplaced belief that simply saying “I don’t like this” about something that one has accurately described is somehow not enough, that something one doesn’t like must instead be A National Menace or akin to slavery or both.
As it happens Ryan is not A National Menace or akin to slavery or both for two reasons: 1) Wisconsin’s actually not so very different after all, and 2) going slow does not guarantee or even correlate particularly well with success.
The Badgers are indeed the slowest-paced team in D-I at the moment, but if we move from ordinal to qualitative descriptions we find that Wisconsin’s shockingly close to “normal.” Stylistically innocuous teams like Notre Dame, West Virginia, and Florida all went their own happy ways last year without their coaches being likened to Lucifer even though they were but six or seven possessions faster per 40 minutes in conference play than was Ryan’s team. That’s three possessions per half, 1.5 for every 10 minutes. If the Future of College Basketball is really to be won or lost in those 1.5 trips, the Future of College Basketball is very fragile indeed.
Ryan succeeds by going slow, but if success in basketball were really as simple as going slow, every mid-major and one-half to two-thirds of major-conference teams would go slow. If that were the case you’d be seeing book titles like Score Points and Greet Fans in Hotel Bars the Kevin O’Neill Way!, and In Perfect Carmody: Lock-Down D in Evanston. But of course you don’t see book titles like that. A team like USC can go really slow and be awful on offense. A team like Northwestern can go really slow and be awful on defense.
Ryan doesn’t neutralize talent, he finds it and develops it. Players like Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor go from being more (Taylor) or less (Leuer) nondescript high-school prospects to being touted lavishly on their own non-system-dependent merits by NBA guru Kevin Pelton in his annual “Evaluating NBA Drafts Before they Happen” feature in our College Basketball Prospectus book.
You may find Wisconsin to be the most boring team in America according to your lights, but the Badgers are no threat to ruin the game.