ROCK ISLAND – As a freshman last season, Ben Ryan stepped into a huge role for the Augustana College men's basketball team, had a great season, and was named national NCAA Div. III Freshman of the Year.|
This season, he has found it difficult to come up with the encore for which he was hoping.
"When you have those kinds of accolades, there's an unspoken expectation and burden that's placed on you coming back,'' said Augie coach Grey Giovanine. "Sometimes that sophomore year after a great freshman year is difficult anyway because the first time through, you get a free pass. Nobody in the league knows who you are, what you can do or how you do it. He just had a tremendous freshman year.''
Last season, Ryan made a big impact as he averaged a team-high 11.7 points and was second on the team with 6.8 boards per game as the Vikings posted a 19-8 overall record.
This season, though, things have been much more difficult for the 6-foot-5 forward from Washington, Ill., to prosper on the offensive end.
"Yeah, it's frustrating,'' said Ryan, who constantly faces double- and triple-teams in the post. "I've been able to rely on a lot of moves for a lot of years – being able to score over the top of people and with contact. This year, even coming in, I knew I wasn't going to be able to do that with people targeting my spin move.''
Still, Ryan has had a solid season, averaging 8.8 points and a team-best 6.5 rebounds per game for the 19-7 Vikings. Gaining praise from coaches and teammates, Ryan continues to be one of the team's hardest workers as he continues to adjust from being a point guard in high school.
That effort has helped the Vikings make the school's 13th NCAA Div. III National Tournament appearance this week – the Vikings' fifth since 2006. They play St. Thomas (22-5) this evening in the first semifinal game of the UW-Whitewater regional pod.
The fact that the Vikings are in the playoffs is a seal of approval for Ryan regarding his efforts in what has been a challenging season. Ryan admits that he doesn't gauge his success by stats alone.
"If you look statistically at production, it shows I had a better year last year,'' said Ryan, noting that's only part of the story. "Team-wise, contributing to the team, we're in the NCAA Tournament and we weren't last year.''
And this is a much better place than having already turned in the uniforms and not be on the court during the school's spring break.
Despite still being a young player, Ryan is able to find a proper perspective to his collegiate career that started off on such a high note last season. He doesn't let a more frustrating season get the better of him, knowing there is a lot of basketball left in his future.
"Even though it's not the main focus, it's in the back of your head that you're trying to achieve the things you did last year,'' said Ryan. "But it's a different team than last year, we all have different roles, and people are stepping up in different places.''
And because of his freshman success, one Ben Ryan has been the center of game plans for this season's foes.
"This time around, he becomes the focal point for every defense; the leading returning scorer,'' said Giovanine. "Teams really focused on taking away his opportunities. That is difficult and I think there was certainly some frustration on his part. I think he pressed and at times tried to do too much. In the last two or three weeks, he has settled back in and letting the game come to him.''
As he moves on in his career, Ryan feels as if he can be an even bigger offensive threat as his game evolves. Playing on the wing, he has the potential to incorporate the long-range shooting skills and driving abilities that took to him such a high level in high school. Two years of playing in the paint in college have given him another perspective of the game down low.
"I like the idea of being a basketball player, having the skills to play inside a 15-foot area or being a perimeter threat,'' said Ryan. "With multiple threats in your game, rather than just one threat or two threats, having a lot of possible things you can do on the court is beneficial. Me being a threat on the 3, I feel it would be good for our team.''
If he adds even more to his game, this weekend won't be the only NCAA Tournament trip he will enjoy in his Augie playing days.
And those are the accolades Ryan is looking for most.