Battles with brother prepared Willen well

Thursday, April 5, 2007
For Notre Dame's Ryan Willen, playing against older brother Bryce started his basketball career. (Kit Doyle)

Notre Dame junior Ryan Willen has come a long way from his front-yard battles with older brother Bryce.

Ryan Willen just wrapped up a season where the 6-foot-8 forward averaged more than 22 points and 10 rebounds a game, surpassed the 1,000-point career scoring plateau, set a school record for points in a season and helped lead his team to a runner-up finish in Class 4.

For those feats, Willen is this year's co-Southeast Missourian Player of the Year.

"That's where basketball started for me. When I was a kid, I'd play Bryce in the front yard," Ryan Willen said. "He'd beat me most of the time. Occasionally, I'd win."

The brothers have kept a close eye on each other's careers. Bryce Willen graduated in 2005 after helping the Bulldogs to a fourth-place finish in Class 4 as a senior. Ryan Willen was cheering his brother on in that instance.

"It's a lot more fun playing than watching it," Ryan Willen said. "We all watched them play, and we all thought they could have won. We thought we could win this year. Things just didn't work out. We'll try to win next year."

If the Bulldogs are going to make a return trip to the state's final four, it will once again be on the shoulders of their dynamic scorer. Willen was the lone returning starter for the Bulldogs this past season. As a sophomore, Willen was more of a threat from the outside.

After losing center Alex Ressel to graduation, and with no other player taller than 6-3 on the varsity roster, Willen was earmarked for the post his junior season. While still giving up plenty of weight down low, Willen improved his low-post moves.

"He was our only legitimate post," Bulldogs coach Paul Hale said. "He really worked on his post skills during the offseason and preseason.

"He's just a scorer. He can put it in from the post and shoot it from the outside."

While effective down low, what set Willen apart was his ability to work away from the basket. Willen was a threat from 3-point range, and once his defender came out to guard the outside shot, Willen could put the ball on the floor and drive to the hoop.

"I think that's what sets him apart from a lot of other players. He's a big kid with guard skills," Hale said. "That's going to help out later in college. He's really going to be a 6-9 or 6-10 kid with guard skills."

Those guard skills helped Willen become a prolific scorer. He scored in double digits in all 32 games for the Bulldogs. His season-low was 11 points, which came in limited duty in a blowout.

Willen scored 20 or more points in 19 games, including four games of 30 or more. During the postseason, Willen was right on his average of 22 points per game.

"The only expectation I had was to help my team," Willen said of his goals heading into the season. "I wanted to do well for them. Coach Hale said my role was to score and rebound. When you get ready for the season, you try to concentrate on what you have to do and try not to worry about what pressure people put on you to do well."

When the season was on the line, the ball came to Willen. On one of those occasions Willen found senior teammate Abe Dirnberger, who hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to push Notre Dame past Sikeston and into the sectional round.

With the score tied in the state semifinals, Willen was put on the free throw line with 3 seconds remaining and sank both free throws to get the Bulldogs to the championship game. Willen scored 31 of Notre Dame's 56 points in the finals.

"I wouldn't trade him for any player in this area," Hale said. "I don't think there's any player that has more upside for the future."

Now with all-state and conference player of the year accolades behind him, the biggest task for Willen in the offseason will be to add weight and strength. Willen held his own against bigger competition this season, but if he is going to go on to the college level he knows he has to add size.

"I'm just going to try to eat a lot to add some weight, the right kind of weight," Willen said. "Just eat a lot and work out when I can."

As far as college basketball goes, Willen seems destined to play at the Division I level. So far he has gotten numerous letters from colleges across the country, but where he will end up is not something Willen is focused on at the moment.

"It's a little bit of a distraction," Willen said. "I just want to work on getting better at basketball. I don't want to focus on that [college choice]. I know I will have to eventually.

"Right now it doesn't matter to me [where I go]. I want to play D-I basketball somewhere I can play. I want to go and be a factor for some college."

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