When it comes to defying all the odds, belief is a powerful weapon. Just ask Ryan Evans. As a youngster, Evans envisioned himself playing big-time college basketball in the biggest arenas around the country.
In so many instances, he was told that he would never make it. As things turned out, it’s a good thing that Evans never listened to the cynics. In this, his final season at the University of Wisconsin, Evans has come full circle as arguably the most improved player in the Big Ten Conference. Evans, a 6-foot-6-inch forward, keyed a late-season run that helped the Badgers earn an NCAA bid. He played a major role in Wisconsin’s back-to-back upset wins over sixth-ranked Michigan and third-ranked Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament.
“If you have a dream and you truly believe in it, don’t let anybody tell you differently,” says Evans, a fifth-year senior who has already earned a bachelor’s degree in life sciences communications. “When you put in the time and the effort, it can happen just like it did for me, just like it has for other people I know. Hard work really does pay off.”
Initially, basketball was anything but a slam dunk for Evans, whose home is Phoenix. As a 10th grader, he was cut during varsity tryouts at one school. So he transferred, elevated his game and emerged as an All-State pick by his senior season.
Wisconsin didn’t scout Evans until right before the end of the high school playoffs of his senior year. When he signed with the Badgers, it was very late in the recruiting cycle. Wisconsin liked his skill set, but he was not considered to be a can’t-miss prospect. As a freshman, he earned playing time as a tough-as-nails defender. Eventually, he worked his way into the starting lineup. Evans plays above the rim and has added a reliable mid-range jumper to his repertoire. This season, he averaged 10.8 points, a team-high 7.7 rebounds a game and was second in minutes played per game at 30.1.
“Ryan’s contributions cannot be overlooked,” says Lamont Paris, an assistant coach at Wisconsin. “He’s been instrumental to a lot of our success. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Basketball is an integral part of his life, but it doesn’t totally define who Ryan Evans is. There’s also Ryan Evans the student, who has a 4.0 grade point average in the educational leadership and policy analysis graduate program at Wisconsin. Since Evans was redshirted earlier in his career, he opted to use his one remaining year of college athletic eligibility to play another season and attend graduate school.
“Ryan is exceptional, very engaging, and he’s committed to making the community a better place,” says Peter Miller, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin. “He’s a great role model for what every student-athlete should be.”
Making dreams come true in spite of long odds is the message that Evans preaches anytime the opportunity presents itself. He can speak the message with conviction because of his own story. When time permits, Evans meets with youngsters of all age groups in a variety of settings to encourage them to pursue their dreams.
“On most college basketball teams, when there are opportunities to go out and interact with the community, the older players who are about ready to graduate usually pass that off to the younger players,” says Paris. “Ryan still does it every chance that he’s able. He’s great with the kids.”
Evans looks at his visits as his way of giving back. You might call it a family-oriented way of thinking. He’s part of a family that has some serious athletes’ genes. His dad, Greg (Minnesota) and uncle David (Wisconsin) were All-American wrestlers in their day; cousin Greg Love played football at UCLA; cousin Quinn Evans played football at Stanford and graduated, then transferred and played at Northwestern as a graduate student; and finally there’s the baby sister Lauren, a freshman on Virginia Tech’s women’s basketball team.
“I have some great role models,” Evans says. “What made it so good was being around the mindsets of successful people. That was the biggest benefit. That’s why I want to pass that on. I want to share the story of how your dreams can become reality if you really believe and you’re willing to work hard and diligently. It’s important to reach back, whether it’s one person at a time or 50 at a time. It’s like keeping a chain of success going. By giving back, I’m so blessed to be in the position I’m in.”
School: University of Wisconsin
Major: Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis