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Wisconsin Badgers' tourney run should have lasting effect

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By Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
April 4, 2014

Whether it's on an upper-echelon state recruit like Dominican's Diamond Stone or Rice Lake's Henry Ellenson, or just some 12-year-old gym rat shooting buckets in his driveway hundreds of miles from Madison, you have to wonder what kind of impression the Wisconsin Badgers playing in the Final Four this weekend will leave.

How can it not leave a stamp, especially with so many kids watching all the attention and adulation the Badgers program is receiving.

Of course, when it comes to highly recruited teenagers, the web of influence stretches far and wide, and the ability to predict a kid's final decision can be an exercise in exasperation.

But if you're Badgers coach Bo Ryan and his staff, the bump in recruiting you stand to receive from reaching the Final Four can't be ignored. You can't underestimate the influence being in the national spotlight has on kids throughout the state, in the Midwest and in corners of the country the Badgers haven't explored.

“Our kids follow them, definitely,” said Neenah coach Scott Bork, who took his team to the Division 1 state high school finals this year. “Our open gym starts on Saturday and they wanted to know if it would conflict with the games.

“There's no question kids are watching. This is the Final Four. You have to think it will help their recruiting. I don't think there's any question about that.”

Kentucky, Florida and Connecticut, the other three participants in the Final Four, are simply solidifying their place as national powers. Over the past decade, each has won at least one national championship and together they have won five, giving them the name recognition that allows them to recruit anywhere in the country.

The Badgers have a well-respected program and have produced a couple of NBA players over the years, most recently Jon Leuer, Greg Stiemsma and Devin Harris. They have even landed McDonald's or Parade All-Americans such as Sam Dekker and Brian Butch and four-star recruits like Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig.

The roster this year might be the best Wisconsin has ever had and shows how consistent winning has allowed Ryan to improve the caliber of athlete he can attract to the program..

Ryan is not going to change his approach to choosing players, but it's possible the pool from which he picks will be far greater given the name recognition and interest the Badgers have received.

“Making the Final Four won't instantly land Wisconsin better recruits, but the actual benefits come down the road with future classes, especially in 2016 and 2017 because it will be fresh in their minds when they start to think about schools,” ESPN recruiting expert and former college coach Paul Biancardi wrote this week. “Going to the Final Four builds recruiting momentum for the upcoming years by opening doors and getting people's attention.

“When the Badgers want to pursue top 2015 prospects such as Diamond Stone or Henry Ellenson, it will certainly help. Wisconsin was already involved with these two prospects, but now they will get an even better look.”

The Badgers have established a solid recruiting base in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa, and with Traevon Jackson and Hayes gained a foothold in Ohio. Any kid who grows up watching Big Ten basketball now knows that Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State aren't their only options if their dream is reaching the Final Four.

Next season, the Big Ten will add East Coast schools Rutgers and Maryland, which means there will be a different part of the country exposed to the predominantly Midwest conference. Kids who are watching the Final Four this week undoubtedly will remember Wisconsin should Ryan come calling.

The Badgers are already looking to the east with 6-11 Josh Sharma, a class of 2015 recruit from Northfield, Mass., who visited the UW campus in January and has reportedly been offered a scholarship. Among the teams the Badgers are said to be competing against is Connecticut.

“There are residual benefits to going to the Final Four,” said Mike Mullins, coach of the AAU Illinois Wolves, for whom Badgers center Frank Kaminsky played. “If you see someone on the East Coast, in the D.C. metro area or New Jersey, maybe they identify him and feel that it's someone they can get now.

“They're always going to identify a certain type of player and they're going to recruit players who can do what they like to do and what made them as successful as they are now. I don't see them deviating from that.”

Earlier in the week, Ryan made a point of saying that he doesn't understand why people think he limits his recruiting to developmental players that he can bring through the system and help grow into future Jared Berggrens, Jon Leuers and Jason Bohannons.

He has proved he can secure the best of the state players and an occasional outsider like Hayes and Jackson, but the multiple five-star prospects the Wildcats will put on the floor have not been a staple of his program.

“It's amazing how many times we get our first lead on a player where they say, 'Oh, this is a Wisconsin player, this is your kind of player,'” Ryan said. “And I say, 'Well, why do you say that?'

“'Well, because right now he's a little raw, but if he gets with you, he's going to be really good.' Oh, OK, that's not bad. But it's (like), 'Hey, how about the one-and-done guy? Why don't you tell him to come and see me?'”

It wouldn't be wise to put too much stock in Ryan recruiting NBA-ready players, but he certainly might find it easier to find more players with the athletic ability, intelligence and character of Dekker, Hayes and Koenig, all of whom were big-time recruits.

After Dick Bennett took the Badgers to the Final Four in 2000, he opened the gate for highly regarded players like Harris, Alando Tucker, Jason Chappell and Boo Wade to join the program. It was a critical step in the advancement of the Badgers program and laid the foundation for Ryan to take it to the next level.

Ryan will have more competition over the state's top players from new Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski. He comes from a Duke program that has won four national championships, two of them during his tenure as an assistant coach.

Those are great credentials and help legitimize a program.

But so do 13 straight NCAA Tournament appearances and a Final Four. Instead of the Spartans' Tom Izzo taking yet another senior class to the Final Four, it is Ryan who stands alone among Big Ten coaches.

“That was just an amazing feat, Michigan State going to the Final Four with each of its senior classes (until this season),” Bork said. “Those kids knew what their chances of going to a Final Four were.

“But now it's Wisconsin. No other Big Ten team made it to the Final Four. That's something to consider. That means a lot for that program.”



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