Frank Kaminsky, star center for the University of Wisconsin basketball team, sat on a dais with four of his teammates before last year’s Elite Eight matchup with Arizona and fielded questions from the news media.
In one or two words, a reporter said, how would you want Arizona’s starters to describe you?
“Resilient” and “disciplined,” replied two of the players. “Unselfish” and “tough,” answered two others.
Then came Kaminsky. “White guys,” he deadpanned.
When the Final Four is played Saturday in Indianapolis, all five starters for Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State will be African American. Wisconsin’s starting lineup, by contrast, includes one African American, forward Nigel Hayes. (Traevon Jackson, who also is African American, was a starter this season before he missed two months with a broken foot.)
It’s a racial makeup that has been noticed, says Jordan Taylor, an African-American point guard who starred for the Badgers from 2008 to 2012. He plays for Hapoel Holon in the Israeli professional league and says he was needled by a teammate this week about Wisconsin’s chances against undefeated Kentucky.
“He was just saying we’ve got too many white guys,” Taylor says with a chuckle. “I still get kind of poked at, teased about it, because it always seems like there are about four white guys and a black point guard all the time (in Wisconsin’s starting lineup).”
Taylor and Kaminsky were among current and former players, former assistant coaches, authorities on the African-American experience at the University of Wisconsin and the state and others who spoke to USA TODAY Sports to answer: Why is the Badgers’ roster predominantly white?
The average Division I men’s basketball team this season includes nine African-American players and four white players, according to data provided by the NCAA. At Wisconsin, the roster includes five African Americans, 10 whites and one Native American.
“It’s an interesting question,” says Alando Tucker, an African American who was a forward for Wisconsin between 2002 and 2007 before playing three years in the NBA and later overseas. “It is surprising.”
What has become familiar is the Badgers’ success under coach Bo Ryan, whose teams have made the NCAA tournament in each of his 14 seasons, reached the Sweet 16 seven times and are in the Final Four for the second year in a row.
“White, black, whatever,” says Jackson, a point guard for the Badgers. “We all worked hard, and Coach Ryan is a tough-nosed coach who gets the most out of you. We’re in back-to-back Final Fours, and we’re looking for more.”
This year’s starting lineup is no aberration. When Wisconsin played Kentucky in the Final Four last year, it had one African American in the starting lineup. When the Badgers reached the Final Four under previous coach Dick Bennett in 2000 — in the school’s only other appearance since 1941 — it had one African-American starter.
A number of factors contribute to Wisconsin’s predominantly white teams, including: state and university demographics; coaching at the lower levels; and Ryan’s system, which features a methodical, half-court offense that is key to his success but according to players and coaches can make it a challenge to recruit top African-American players.
Ryan, through a Wisconsin spokesman, declined to comment.
“I think the misconception is that Bo just likes to recruit the big, white kids,” says Howard Moore, who was an assistant coach under Ryan from 2005 to 2010, played at Wisconsin from 1990 to 1995 and is African American. “Those (assistant coaches at Wisconsin) have done a great job of recruiting to Bo’s system and staying true to what Bo believes in and going and getting the kids that believe in what they do. That’s the key.”
Statistics from this season show the essence of Ryan’s system: The Badgers ranked second in Division I in assist-to-turnover ratio, 12th in scoring defense and 17th in field goal shooting percentage.
For DeShawn Curtis, who offers private basketball lessons in the Milwaukee area and coaches on the AAU circuit, the numbers are further evidence that Ryan wants his recruits to have strong fundamentals. Curtis says that is not an emphasis on the AAU teams he has seen in the area, especially in the inner city of Milwaukee.
“They don’t teach their kids how to play basketball,” says Curtis, who has worked with Diamond Stone, a Milwaukee product and one of the nation’s top high school seniors. “The majority of the programs, it’s about, ‘We’ve got better athletes than you.'”
Top recruits — regardless of race — also tend to favor an uptempo style because they think it will help them get to the NBA, according to Curtis, other high school coaches and former Wisconsin players.
Taylor, who was an all-Big Ten Conference point guard for Wisconsin, says, “I think the style of play we have doesn’t appeal to the premier athlete.”
That’s what led Jerry Smith, a top-rated recruit from Milwaukee, to sign with Louisville in 2006, according to Smith’s high school coach, George Haas.
“Louisville, their push is, ‘We get you ready for the pros,'” Haas says. “For a lot of those kids, that’s the most important thing.”
Tucker, one of three players to be selected in the NBA draft during Ryan’s tenure at Wisconsin, says pro scouts complained about the Badgers’ style of play.
“It’s just hard to watch one of those (low-scoring) games,” Tucker says. “No one really wants to see a 55-50 game. They want want to see 80, 90 points scored.”
Yet Ryan’s style has helped elevate the program to among the elites, with the team being ranked in the Top 25 in 13 of his 14 seasons in Madison.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter, a former assistant to Ryan, says there is a misconception about the Badgers’ game that dates to the 2000 Final Four. That’s where Wisconsin and its slowdown offense orchestrated by Ryan’s predecessor, Dick Bennett, managed 41 points in a loss to Michigan State.
Meanwhile, Ryan’s offense has opened up. This year the Badgers ranked fourth in scoring among the 14 teams in the Big Ten Conference at 72.4 points a game. And in its NCAA tournament victories, Wisconsin has averaged 80.5 points.
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SOURCE: USA Today – Josh Peter