On June 6th, 2020 Will Ryan agreed to terms to become the head coach of UW Green Bay. I, like many others, had my attention captured by the son of Bo Ryan getting a chance to take over a program in the state where his father built his legacy. This is something I decided I had to see for myself and hopped on the bandwagon.
So, who is Will Ryan, and how did he get this job? Will Ryan joined his father’s staff at Wisconsin from 2002-2007 as a video coordinator. Ryan’s coaching journey doesn’t stop there. Ryan has also made stops at North Dakota State (2007-14) and Ohio (2014-19) working under Saul Phillips as an assistant.
Finally Will Ryan got his chance as head coach at Wheeling University due to a late resignation from the previous head coach. Coach Ryan had only five players on the roster and had to build the team almost entirely from scratch. In his only season, Wheeling was picked to finish last in conference play. Despite the non-existent expectations he guided Wheeling to a 14-13 record and a fifth place finish. What that tells me is that the guy can coach, and that systems can overcome lack of talent when under the proper leadership.
So, you might ask yourself, what makes me qualified to comment on the current state of the Green Bay phoenix program? In short, I have religiously followed and studied Wisconsin and Bo Ryan’s system since I was a young buck and wanted the opportunity to watch Will Ryan implement his system on the ground floor. I know what things are supposed to look like on both ends of the floor and what is expected of the players in the system.
The system Will Ryan brings to Green Bay focuses on fundamentals, taking care of the basketball, playing sound defense (following the defensive rules above all else), and ball movement.
The beauty of what Coach Ryan wants to bring to Green bay is that it doesn’t take top flight talent to accomplish these things. It just requires hard work, discipline, wanting to play as a unit instead of an individual, and the ability to be teachable. In short it’s sustainable and allows you to control the pace of the game.
Quick Synopsis of the system:
Value the basketball, take high percentage shots, work the ball until that high percentage shot is found (Doesn’t matter when in the shot clock). The offense is going to require players to have a level of versatility because after working the motion offense through a few times each player will essentially be playing all the positions on the floor. Guards need to be able to play some in the low post, and bigs need to be able to play out on the perimeter. Spacing is incredibly important, and so are the screening actions involved. Half-assed screens can be enough to prevent a high percentage look.
While on paper this might look like a boring offense that’s difficult to win with, think again. When the system has the right personnel fits (unselfish players, strong ball handler, shooters, and floor spacing bigs) it can lead to an incredibly high offensive efficiency. A high percentage of baskets will be assisted on, and in a perfect world the team should have a relatively high field goal percentage. When this system has five players on the floor who can shoot from deep at the same time, that’s when this offense is able to reach its full potential. Don’t get hung up on points per game anymore, that’s not what matters. Focus on points per possession, because that’s what’s going to show you just how good the offense is performing.
This is a system where all players are expected to play tough man to man defense on every single possession. This is the lifeblood and foundation of what Ryan is going to try to implement at Green Bay. On paper this seems unimpressive and non-complex right? Wrong again. This system follows a strict set of defensive rules and if you break them, there is a good chance you will find yourself on the pine or never have been on the floor at all. Preventing the other team from scoring is more important than scoring the ball yourself, and getting a unit to cohesively perform in this system doesn’t happen overnight.
The expectation is that players will constantly be in the right position with the goal of forcing up a difficult shot (highly contested/in the lane), or one of low percentage (deep 2). You have to move your feet and never reach to avoid fouling at any cost. Off the dribble, never give up the baseline, and no same side help. If you’re going to help it must come from those furthest from the ball.
On a ball screen if possible try and force the ball handler into the screen so a reject isn’t as likely. This allows the big man to get into “drop coverage” and provide help until the guard can get over the top of the screen and back into position, without allowing the roll man to slip behind you. In the low post, you are to avoid jumping to block shots. The goal is to body the player and go straight up, again to avoid fouling.
Also, more important than offensive rebounding is getting back in transition and setting up the defense. When executed to perfection, this wears teams down.
Entering year one, Will Ryan was left with only two players returning who had in game experience (Davis/Pipes), and 11 new members to the team (8 freshman). That would be tough drawn even if it wasn’t his first year on the job. This is a system on both sides of the ball, specifically defense that takes time to perfect and understand. So how did coach fair in year one?
Record: (8-16 overall) (8-12 conference)
*first round loss in Horizon league tournament
Offense: 71.1 PPG Defense: 76 PPG
- Went from #1 tempo in college basketball to 316th (slowest in horizon league)
- 22nd nationally in turnover%
- Adjusted Offensive efficiency 154th in the nation. 5th in the horizon league.
- Adjusted Defensive efficiency: 319th in the nation. 8th in the horizon league.
- GB either matched or won the turnover battle in 15 games this season.
- 9 different starting lineups used.
- 8 different freshmen saw minutes this season.
- After an 0-9 start the team finished the season 8-8 from January until the end of the year.
According to Will’s father, Bo Ryan, to win a game you are aiming for approximately (1.1 PPP) on offense, and allowing only (0.95 PPP) on defense. This season the Phoenix scored (1.007 PPP) and allowed (1.076 PPP).
Expecting to reach these marks in year one was unrealistic quite frankly. Especially when on an individual note, Coach Ryan only had two players on the roster (Pipes/Davis) who proved to score more points when on the floor than they allowed on defense.
On defense Coach Ryan did have 6 players out of the 10 that appeared in 19 games or more that achieved the (0.95 PPP) allowed on individual defense. Those players were: Davis, Stieber, Claflin, Thompson, Kellogg, and Pipes. Which is probably the reason five of the top seven players in average minutes played were those mentioned above, only excluding Claflin.
This is why when people ask why isn’t (insert player here) getting more minutes over someone else, it’s easy to turn to defense as the explanation. Coaches don’t always play the best players, they play the ones they can trust. Coach Ryan is no different. He wants to win with defense because defense travels even when the offense doesn’t. He feels this is what gives his team the best chance to win and it’s ultimately what will determine when players will see the floor.
Lucas Stieber: (C+) 3.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4 assists. 0.733 PPP 37.6 FG% | 66.7 FT% | 29.5 3P%
Lucas Stieber made the all freshman team, recorded the best DRtg on the team, and allowed the second fewest PPP on defense. Hard nosed efficient defense and ball security were Stieber’s greatest strengths.
The walk-on finished the season with a 3.2 assist to turnover ratio and finished top 1o in the horizon league in APG. He isn’t the best ball handler and struggles at times when teams applied full court pressure, but generally was smart enough to get the ball in the hands of someone better suited.
Stieber most certainly has his offensive limitations. Creating for himself isn’t a strength right now and his spot up shooting could definitely stand to improve also. His defensive versatility and consistency with his assignments will continue to garner him big minutes.
He’s clearly someone Coach Ryan trusts. Pretty nice fit for the system, especially for a walk-on. I would expect him to be on scholarship sooner rather than later.
PJ Pipes: (A-) 14.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3 assists. (1.009 PPP) 43 FG% | 95.1 FT% | 40.7 3P%
Pipes was fantastic this season. He understood the system, was unselfish and played with the suddenness this offense requires from its primary ball handlers. I’m convinced Pipes could have led the team in scoring if he wanted to, but generally focused on making the smart decision.
His ability to shoot consistently from deep was a welcomed sight on a team where that wasn’t a strong suit. Pipes was an incredibly efficient player on the offensive end and moved his feet really well on defense, even if he wasn’t the most talented defender. He played within the principles of the system on both ends and ended up having a terrific season.
A case could be made he played at an all-conference level. Rock solid is the only way to describe Pipes this year. He may pursue a professional career after this season but it goes without saying the Phoenix would be happy to have him back.
Amari Davis: (A-) 17.2 points, 3.7 rebounds ,1.9 assists. (.91 PPP) 42.2 FG% | 80.4 FT% | 28 3P%
Davis ended the season as a 2nd team all-horizon league performer. He was someone I was excited to watch for myriad reasons entering the season. He is a gifted slasher and not exactly a fit for the system Coach Ryan was implementing. Davis took it in stride and embraced everything that was asked of him. He expanded his game out to the three point line, even if he connected at a low percentage it was something that still had to be respected. Floor spacing was an immensely important piece to this offense.
What impressed me most was what he accomplished on the defensive end. He ended up becoming the team’s individual leader in defensive PPP allowed (0.80), often guarding the opposing team’s best players. That’s a really amazing mark for someone most didn’t consider to be a strong defender a year ago.
Whether Davis and Ryan were a perfect marriage schematically is up for debate. What isn’t is that it’s undeniable that Coach Ryan made Davis a better overall basketball player, someone who will be more attractive to a big program due to the completeness of his game. He may not have been the most efficient scorer but he was electric at getting to the rim and putting up points in a hurry. Had he stayed at Green Bay he would have no doubt been among the schools all-time leading scorers, if not the leading scorer. He is going to be remembered fondly and missed dearly at Green Bay.
Emmanuel Ansong: (B) 10.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists. (1.053 PPP – 88th percentile) 58.2 FG% | 65.2 FT% | 21.4 3P%
Only played 19 games due to transferring from Wheeling university. Emmanuel Ansong led the team is ORtg by a large margin (for those who regularly appeared in the rotation) as well as leading the team in PER.
Ansong was a major bright spot for the Phoenix and an offensive rebounding machine despite being undersized. Ansong always plays at 100MPH and sometimes that leads to some ugly mistakes, but he’s able to do so many things you can’t teach. Manny plays so much bigger than his size and is relentless around the rim. What impressed me most on offense was how dominant he was in the post. Ansong averaged (1.25 PPP) on post ups last season, which ranked in the 97th percentile in all of college basketball.
The defensive end is where the bulk of improvement needs to be done. Of the ten players who appeared in 19 or more games, Ansong recorded the worst defensive PPP allowed (1.07) on the roster. Now this isn’t to say that he isn’t a capable defender. He was often defending someone considerably bigger than him which is no easy task. On top of it, this defensive system is one that takes all players on the floor being in sync. With his eligibility in question, he didn’t get a fair shake at the reps many others got, and more or less got thrown into the fire and had to learn on the job. He has all the intangibles to be a good defender and has a great work ethic. I believe he will improve drastically next season, and he’ll have to because he’s in line for heavy minutes.
This grade would be higher if it wasn’t for his defense. With a full off-season under his belt I expect Ansong to be all league next year.
Japannah Kellogg: (C) 4.5 points, 2.8 rebounds. (0.90 PPP) 47.6 FG% | 64.6 FT%
Kellogg did some good things late in the season. What I found to be most encouraging was Kellogg’s willingness to establish himself in the low post as the season wore on and not force any bad shots. He also showed significant improvement in the defending of ball screens late in the season (very important in this system), which he struggled with early in the season. I also thought he worked hard on the glass despite giving up some size.
It was abundantly clear that Coach Ryan trusted Kellogg on the defensive end and that’s why he got big minutes he did down the stretch. I think to the untrained eye most weren’t wowed by him this year, but I think he improved within the system as much as any other player this year. Very encouraging from a Red-shirt Freshman. Kellogg was also very efficient on the block, averaging (0.968 PPP) on post ups (75th percentile).
I would like to see Kellogg add a mid-range jumper this off-season, something he was hesitant to do this year. His high school tape suggests he has more shooting ability then we saw this season. Kellogg has a chance to step into a bigger role next season as a player Coach Ryan built a lot of trust in. On a team lacking size, he is going to be an important player.
Josh Jefferson: (B-) 14.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists. (0.932 PPP) 38.8 FG% | 76.3 FT% | 34 3P%
Jefferson’s grade may be a bit critical for a player who was second on the team in scoring, but this is largely due to the streaky shooting, rough defense, and low shooting percentages.
However, Jefferson was an integral part of this offense and a strong 6th man of the year candidate. When the shot was falling he deserved every minute he got and was a definite game changer for a team that was devoid of strong presence beyond the arc. When it wasn’t it was tough to justify due to his relative lack of ability on the defensive end. Jefferson allowed (1.02 PPP) on defense, which was in the bottom 14% in all of college basketball.
Jefferson was a good player for Green Bay and offensively had a lot to offer. Jefferson has entered the transfer portal and will move on from the program.
Terrance Thompson: (C) 4 points, 3 rebounds. (0.835 PPP) 45.3 FG% | 59.1 FT% | 29.4 3P%
Thompson is a player that has a chance to be a solid piece for Green Bay. While he may not exactly possess touch around the rim he does have the ability to move defenders when he wants to be aggressive. The stronger and more confident he becomes he has a chance to be a force down low if he can develop better footwork in the low post..
I give him a pass because he’s a true freshman but Thompson strikes me as a player that forgets how big he is at times. I think Thompson has the ability to become an enforcer at both ends of the floor in time. Defending ball screens were something Thompson struggled with quite a bit. His foot speed was a little slow and lost defenders in drop coverage too often to earn more minutes. The best thing about that however is that its very teachable. On the flip side, Thompson did a really nice job defending other bigs on post ups. He was really able to utilize his strength on the block.
Coach Ryan was right to focus on developing him in a season where he has to both implement and build for the future. Thompson has the potential to be a very valuable piece for the program moving forward.
Paris Taylor: (D+) 3.3 points, 2.8 rebounds. (0.811 PPP) 48.1 FG%
Taylor is definitely a usable player off the bench. He’s a solid post player with some athleticism but is too undersized for the position to make a significant impact. He has decent form on his mid range jumper and passable touch around the rim. Taylor is more along the lines of a player the coach appreciates more than the fan-base. He’s trustworthy and knows his role. He is certainly an adequate depth piece and deserves some minutes but it’s hard to envision much more out of him.
Ryan Claflin: (D+) 2.4 points, 1.7 rebounds (0.815 PPP) 40.8 FG% | 66.7 FT% | 22.6 3P%
Claflin needs to add some weight to his wiry frame before he can be leaned on more heavily. Claflin was often in position on defense and actually showed some promise on that end. The walk-on struggled to defend bigs down low due to his relative lack of strength, this led to him fouling at a pretty high clip.
While he didn’t’ connect on many of the 3’s he took, he does have a really nice looking shot. Claflin looks the part of someone who can contribute as soon as he gets bigger and stronger. Would appear to be a decent system fit. Don’t be surprised if he earns a scholarship down the road.
Cem Kirciman: (D) 1.6 points, 1.5 rebounds. (0.75 PPP) 36.7 FG% | 80 FT% | 33.3 3P%
Kirciman looked out of place at times on both ends of the floor. Not very physical for someone his size and im unsure if he has the foot speed to defend at a high level.
He found his way onto the floor plenty but what kept him from earning more minutes was his overall play on defense. In short, it was really bad. Kirciman allowed (1.067) PPP on defense. That’s not going to be acceptable for a player coming off the bench.
He does offer something as a floor spacer on offense which is where the fit comes in. Floor stretching bigs are important in this offense. I’m definitely not writing him off by any means. Kirciman was a true freshman adjusting to D1 basketball like many on the roster. He is going to need some time.
Colin Schaefer: (INC) 1.5 points, 0.5 rebounds, 0.2 assists. 58.3 FG% | 50 FT% | 100 3P%
Appeared in 13 games, including 5 of the last 7. I have to give Schaefer an incomplete grade for now, but he clearly was someone who earned the coaches trust as the year went on. Schaefer logged some meaningful minutes at the end of the year and worked hard defensively.
Schaefer was aggressive on offense when given the chance and knocked down his jumpers. It’s hard to imagine Schaefer as a significant contributor next season but you have to like what you saw from the walk-on freshman, even if he’s just a depth piece.
As far as the transfers go, both sides deserve to find their own happiness and the fit that’s right for them. These recruits were not brought in by Will Ryan and had the expectation of playing in a system that is quite literally the opposite of what Coach Ryan brought to the school.
Likewise Coach Ryan deserves a group of young men that want to play for him in his system. It’s obviously a huge bummer to lose a player of Amari Davis caliber, and will be beloved by the fan-base for a long time. Green Bay however, will be just fine. This can be a situation where it’s mutually beneficial for everyone involved. This is a new era/culture for the program. This allows Ryan to find more players that are to his liking and fit his style of play.
Reasons for optimism:
- Coach Ryan is bringing in a strong first recruiting class. All three members are from in-state and widely considered top 10 players from Wisconsin in the 2021 class. Coach Ryan is going to begin building a fence around the state and securing as many in-state players as he can, which will create consistent working relationships (AAU programs) and add intrigue to the program. The recruiting formula is going to be simple, get old, stay old. So while this might take some patience, it’s going to be worth it.
- Establishing a culture. Teamwork and hard nosed defense travels anywhere.
- Part of the beauty of the system is how unique the style of play is, it allows Green Bay to dictate the pace of play in every game. Teams are more often forced to adjust to their style of play, instead of the other way around.
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