If nothing else, we’ve learned over the years to never count out the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
Two years ago, the Badgers were 9-9 in mid-January and struggling to get over coach Bo Ryan’s in-season retirement. However, they figured things out under coach Greg Gard and closed the regular season with an 11-2 run to reach the NCAA tournament.
UW is also 9-9 in this, Gard’s third season as coach. But given the current shortages in talent and experience plus a Big Ten Conference schedule that will get very difficult very quickly, the Badgers are likely to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
Some in the social media universe are certain this season’s fall signals the end of an era at UW, that Gard can’t keep the program at the level it has maintained since Ryan arrived in 2001. Others think this season is a one-year anomaly due to a combination of inexperience, injuries, a tough early schedule and some third-year players who haven’t developed as much as players usually do in UW’s program.
As with many things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle for a program that somehow got out of sync.
It’s quite possible this is a one-time “bridge” season for UW following a four-year run of success unequaled in school history. It happens to every program, even the blue bloods, from time to time. But if Ethan Happ returns for his senior season, guards D’Mitrik Trice, Kobe King and Brad Davison move past their injury issues and promising freshmen Davison, King, Nate Reuvers and Aleem Ford take steps forward in their development, there is reason to believe UW can be right back in the mix next season.
On the other hand, if you look at the roster and the absence of instant-impact recruits coming in next season, you can see red flags that could turn this into a multi-season slump. Swings and misses in recruiting following the 2015 NCAA Final Four have left the program short of upperclassmen capable of playing major minutes in the Big Ten. Even if Happ stays, UW will have to get moving on the recruiting front to ensure continued success. The Badgers need quality and quantity from the class of 2019 to back up their current freshman group and put the program back on schedule.
In the meantime, UW doesn’t look like it usually looks. There is slippage in some of the program’s core values — defense, taking care of the ball and player development. Opponents are shooting 45.8 percent, the high-water mark since the 1992-93 season. UW, which led the nation with 7.4 turnovers per game in 2014-15, is averaging 11.3 this season. And building the team around one upperclassman (Happ) is something UW hasn’t experienced in the past 16 seasons.
So what happened? How did the Big Ten’s most finely-tuned machine jump the tracks? Actually, a number of factors converged all at once.
First, UW had to replace four seniors who had dominated the playing time the previous two seasons. Other than Happ, no returning player had been more than a bit player, so inexperience was going to be an issue for a program that traditionally avoids that kind of mass turnover.
Second, UW played a brutal early season schedule, which proved to be too much for a young team, even one coming off a summer trip. With a minimum of practice time in between games due to the Big Ten moving two games to early December, UW lost seven times in a tough nine-game stretch, damaging the confidence of a young team.
Third, injuries depleted the team, especially at guard. In December, Trice was lost indefinitely and King for the season, leaving Davison and Brevin Pritzl as the only scholarship guards. Davison has been forced to play out of position at point guard while at the same time battling a recurring shoulder injury.
Fourth, the junior class hasn’t developed on schedule. Pritzl (a redshirt sophomore) and Khalil Iverson have been up and down. Meanwhile, the three frontcourt juniors — Charlie Thomas, Alex Illikainen and Andy Van Vliet — can’t earn significant minutes despite having all the opportunity in the world. Their lack of development falls on the coaches and players alike: The coaches have to push the right buttons, but the players have to work hard and buy in, too.
Finally, the fundamental nature of UW’s program works against it at times like this. As a team that uses well-defined offensive and defensive systems, it needs players to make an orderly progression through the program. They get their feet wet as freshmen, play significant minutes as sophomores and form the backbone of team as juniors and seniors.
For the first time in the Ryan-Gard era, that chain has been broken and UW has been forced to rely heavily on young players. Instead of learning to function in those systems while sharing the floor with veterans, the freshmen are often on the floor with one another, which has led to breakdowns. Not only that, but the lack of depth has limited Gard’s options in sitting players when they do make mistakes.
Short term, UW’s outlook isn’t good. Four of its final 13 regular-season games are against top-five teams Michigan State and Purdue. If you concede that it will be tough for UW to win those four games, it would have to go 7-2 in its remaining games to finish above .500 in the regular season. Even in a weak Big Ten, that doesn’t seem likely.
Long term, there is no reason for panic regarding UW’s future at this point. A bit of concern maybe, but not panic. With Happ having to basically play one-on-five offensively, the Badgers aren’t their usual efficient selves. But Davison, King and Reuvers are potential cornerstone players and, as they mature and develop, there’s no reason UW can’t get back to normal.