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

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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.”

4-star center commits to Purdue

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With Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas entering their senior seasons, adding front court options in the 2018 class was something that Purdue needed to do. Purdue added its second front court commitment in the 2018 class Tuesday evening, as four-star center Emmanuel Dowuona reportedly made his pledge. News of Dowuona’s commitment was first reported by the Lafayette Journal & Courier.

Dowuona, a 6-foot-11 big man who attends Westwood Christian School in Miami, joins fellow four-star prospect Trevion Williams in Purdue’s 2018 class to date.

Dowuona’s commitment comes just days before he was reportedly to visit Tennessee. Among the other programs to have offered Duwuona were Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami and UConn.

Dowuona played for the Team Breakdown program on the Under Armour Association circuit during the summer, averaging 7.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 59.3 percent from the field. While still a bit raw offensively, the native of Ghana provides value as a defender and rebounder. Dowuona is joining a program that during Painter’s tenure as head coach has done a good job of developing big men.

Dowuona and the aforementioned Williams will look to compete for playing time in 2018-19 alongside current redshirt junior Jacquil Taylor and 7-foot-3 redshirt freshman center Matt Haarms.

Dayton freshman Toppin ineligible for 2017-18 season

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Dayton announced Tuesday afternoon that one of the program’s incoming freshmen will not be eligible to compete this season. 6-foot-8 forward Obadiah Toppin has been ruled by the NCAA to have not met initial eligibility requirements, and he will have to sit out the 2017-18 season as a result.

Toppin will be allowed to remain a member of the team and participate in practices, and he will have four seasons of eligibility remaining beginning with the 2018-19 season. While the NCAA’s decision leaves the Flyers short a front court option in head coach Anthony Grant’s first season at the helm, it did not come as a surprise.

“We knew this was a possible scenario for Obi early on in the recruiting process,” Grant said in the release. “And if it came to pass, we saw this as a chance for him to utilize this year acclimate as a student and enhance his strength and skill as an academic redshirt. This is a great opportunity for Obi to develop as a player and student over the next 12 months, and prepare himself for a very successful college career.”

Toppin, who averaged 17 points and eight rebounds per game at Mt. Zion Academy last season, is one of five freshmen who have joined the program. Matej Svoboda and Jordan Pierce will look to earn minutes alongside returnees Josh Cunningham and Xeyrius Williams, and the same can be said for redshirt freshman Kostas Antetokounmpo.

Toppin being declared ineligible is the third hit Dayton has taken to its front court this offseason. Ryan Mikesell, who played in 32 games last season, will redshirt after undergoing two hip surgeries. And Sam Miller, who was also part of the team’s front court rotation last season, was suspended from school for the fall semester after he was arrested during the summer.

Four-star forward commits to Ohio State

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Ohio State is on the board with regards to the 2018 recruiting class, as Chris Holtmann’s program received a much-needed verbal commitment from four-star forward Jaedon LeDee. The 6-foot-9 Houston native announced his decision via his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon.

In receiving a verbal commitment from LeDee, Ohio State beat out California, Houston, Iowa State, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and UCLA. The Buckeyes hosted LeDee for his official visit the weekend of September 9, which coincided with the football team’s matchup with Oklahoma. Originally scheduled to visit Cal this past weekend, LeDee instead visited Texas A&M.

With LeDee’s commitment to Ohio State, visits to LSU (September 30) and UCLA (October 6) are likely off the board.

Currently attending the Kincaid School, LeDee played for the Texas PRO grassroots program on the adidas Uprising circuit this summer. The four-star prospect will likely be a combo forward for Ohio State, playing either the three or the four depending on the matchup.

With Jae’Sean Tate beginning his senior season and Keita Bates-Diop being a redshirt junior, Ohio State had a need to address in the front court. In landing a verbal pledge from Jaedon LeDee, the Buckeyes have done just that.

Among the front court players who will have eligibility remaining beyond the 2017-18 season are Bates-Diop, current sophomores Micah Potter and Andre Wesson, and freshmen Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young.

The Pac-12 is foolish for scheduling Arizona-UCLA once during the regular season

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Last month, I wrote about one of the more troubling trends in college basketball: Teams steering away from playing the games that fans are going to care about the most.

It was the result of Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing stating publicly that he was “not thinking about Maryland” after the rivalry between the DMV’s two most well-known programs went by the wayside.

Ewing isn’t the only coach that is culpable here. Kansas and Missouri don’t play. Kansas and Wichita State don’t play, either. Duke and Maryland don’t play. Ohio State doesn’t play Cincinnati, Xavier or Dayton. It goes on and on.

But the blame can no longer only be given to the coaches that schedule to protect themselves and/or their program.

The conferences deserve some criticism as well. Take, for instance, the Pac-12, who released their schedule recently after deciding that Arizona, a contender for the preseason No. 1 team in the country, should only play UCLA and USC, the only two teams that have a realistic chance of upending the Wildcats for the Pac-12 crown, once apiece.

Not only that, but the games will be played in Tucson, an incredible advantage for Sean Miller’s club as they pursue the league’s regular season title.

Look, I get it. There are 12 teams in the league and there is an 18-game schedule. Each team in the league is going to play four of their 11 league foes just once. It’s simple math. But the answer should never, ever be to schedule the Arizona schools and the Southern California schools just once.

The reasoning is simple: Arizona and UCLA are the two biggest brands in the league. When they play it will draw more interest than when any other two teams in the conference play, and that’s something the conference should be trying to capitalize on. It takes a lot to convince anyone on the east coast to stay up to watch a Pac-12 basketball game. I cover this sport for a living and I have a hard time making it all the way through a 10 p.m. ET tip. When a two-year old is going to be screaming at me to make breakfast at 6:30 a.m., do I really want to stay up to watch Arizona blow out Washington or UCLA to beat up on Cal?

The Pac-12 should do everything they can to ensure that Arizona and UCLA play twice every season.

That is even more true this year. Arizona might be the best team in the country and they might have the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft on their roster in Deandre Ayton. UCLA is a top 15 team that just so happens to have Liangelo Ball, the worst of the three Ball brothers and potentially the last one to matriculate through the college ranks. The seemingly inevitable LaVar Ball blow-up is something we all will be watching patiently to see.

Should I mention the simmering hatred between Sean Miller and Steve Alford as they continually compete for the best prospects on the west coast?

And that’s before you factor in that USC is the second-best team in the league, and anyone that UCLA plays twice, USC will also play twice.

I’ll be sure to watch a number of Oregon games this season, and I think that Stanford, Oregon State and Colorado all have the pieces to sneak up on some people this year. I’ll be sure to check in on them a couple times as well.

But the games that I’ll have circled on my calendar, the games I’ll be excited about watching, are between Arizona, UCLA and USC.

By scheduling the Arizona schools and the Southern California schools just once during the regular season, the Pac-12 cost themselves a third of that inventory.

That doesn’t seems like the smartest way to run a business conference.

But hey, if conference realignment and the development of conference-only networks taught us anything, it’s that major college athletics are all about competitive balance over those advertising dollars.

Vanderbilt lands commitment from Aaron Nesmith

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Vanderbilt landed their first commitment in the Class of 2018 with four-star wing Aaron Nesmith.

Nesmith is a native of South Carolina, and the Commodores beat out South Carolina for his services. At 6-foot-6, Nesmith is the kind of defensive presence and athlete that Vandy will need to replace Jeff Roberson, who will be graduating this season.

This is a critical class for Bryce Drew, who is squarely in the mix for five-star guards Darius Garland and Romeo Langford. Nesmith isn’t on that level, but he will be a nice piece for Vandy for four years.