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Why is Wisconsin basketball so good at producing talented big men?

Apr 4, 2014, 8:31 PM EST

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ARLINGTON, Texas – Bo Ryan is one of the best system coaches in all of college basketball. With very few exceptions — maybe Shaka Smart, maybe John Beilein — no coach in the country is better at identifying players that will fit into his basketball program than Ryan is.

The stereotype of a ‘Wisconsin player’ is that they are big, they are slow and they are white, and while that is not exactly inaccurate — it is a fact that Frank Kaminsky is big, he is slow and he is white — it does ignore one indisputable fact: no one on the Badgers is a stiff.

Kaminsky may not have the physical tools of Mason Plumlee and he may never get mistaken for a professional wrestler like Patric Young, but he is by no means a stiff. In fact, I’d argue that he was one of the five most skilled big men in college basketball. His low-post moves are NBA-caliber, he can step out and hit a three and he can beat a slower-footed big man off of the dribble and get all the way to the rim.

Outside of Adreian Payne on one of his good days, there may not have been a more difficult player to matchup with in the entire country. How do you guard him? He over powers smaller players and he torches bigger defenders on the perimeter. He made the second-best defensive team nationally this season — Arizona, just so happened to feature the best individual defender in Aaron Gordon — look powerless against him in the Elite 8.

Frank Kaminsky single-handedly sent Arizona into the offseason.

Think about that.

Kaminsky played about 10 minutes per game as a sophomore. If you aren’t a serious Big Ten fan or a resident of Wisconsin, you probably had no idea who he was entering the season. I’m sure there is a large population of college hoops fans that had never head of Kaminsky until that Elite 8 performance.

He may be the most improved player in college basketball, but none of that should surprise you if you’ve been paying attention.

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Brian Butch was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school in 2003, and a top ten recruit usually enters schools with a center level of expectation. They’ll get minutes right away. They’ll get a chance to showcase their skills in their first season. They’ll have a chance to show NBA scouts that they belong in the NBA Draft’s HOV lane, bypassing the traffic on the road to the riches of a guaranteed contract.

Butch?

He redshirted.

“I was a McDonald’s All-American, but I was 185 pounds coming in trying to play in the Big Ten,” Butch told NBCSports.com in a telephone interview on Friday. “I sat down with the coaches and they said would I be better my freshmen year, or take some time to develop my body and really be a force my fifth year.”

For Butch, the decision was simple. He redshirted, giving up his first season on campus for the chance to get better because, in the long run, that’s what would be better for the program.

“They knew what kind of person I was, first and foremost,” Butch said. “They knew I was all about winning and all about team and not a selfish guy. I was all about what the University of Wisconsin was about. And those are the guys that they continue to get.”

Butch was just one link in a chain of Wisconsin big men that have paid their dues, as a redshirt or a scout team member, before stepping into a bigger role in the program. Mike Wilkinson gave way to Butch. Butch passed the torch to Marcus Landry, who was succeeded by Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil, who gave way to Jared Berggren who, eventually, led us to Kaminsky.

“It’s a culture thing,” assistant coach Gary Close said, doing everything he could to deflect credit from the coaching staff and directing it all towards the players. The way Close sees it, all the coaching in the world wouldn’t help a kid whose uninterested in actually getting better. They put in the work, which is why they see the results.

But Close and the coaching will take some credit in what they have their players do to improve. In every college basketball practice at every level, at some point the team will split up into big men and guards, running through drills and working on specific fundamentals. Post moves and outlet passing drills for the big men. Ball-handling and jump shooting drills for the guards. Wisconsin makes a point of ensuring that every player on the roster goes through both. “We ask a little more than other programs,” he said. “We want our guys to be versatile out on the floor, in the post, passing, handling the ball, shooting. There’s a little more work there in terms of versatility.”

“The coaches have a lot to do with [our development],” current Memphis Grizzlies forward Jon Leuer said. “We work hard in the preseason and the offseason. [They] are big on the individual work.”

And it certainly doesn’t hurt that all of that individual work is done against all-Big Ten caliber big men.

“I got to play against Jared [Berggren] for two years and that really helped me grow as a player,” Kaminsky said. “I had to learn things from him and apply it to my game. I had to learn to score on him. I had to learn how to defend him.”

“Jared used to beat me up, day in and day out, but eventually got to the point where I was beating him up a little bit. It’s a process. It’s frustrating. But it really works for us.”

Wisconsin’s success lies in their ability to identify and develop players that fit in their program, and while that’s a testament to the kids that they bring in, it also says a lot about the work that Ryan has put in to get Wisconsin basketball to where it is today.

“Coach Ryan has a system and he recruits people into his system that are going to take their four years to grow, physically and mentally, into that system,” Kaminsky said. “By the time you’re ready to play you’re going to be effective in that system. It comes with a lot of frustrations and a lot of ups and downs, but he really demands the best out of every one of his players. That’s happened with me and I’ve been able to grow into this person and player that I am today.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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