The worst season in 20 years for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team has put some fans on edge. Some people are even wondering about the direction of the program under coach Greg Gard.
Not Barry Alvarez. During a wide-ranging conversation in his office at Kellner Hall, the UW athletic director said Tuesday that he hasn’t lost faith in Gard despite the Badgers’ major struggles this season.
“I feel great about Greg,” Alvarez said.
UW is 10-15 overall and 3-9 in Big Ten Conference play heading into a game at Illinois on Thursday night. The Badgers haven’t missed the NCAA tournament since 1998, a run of 19 seasons that includes 10 trips to the Sweet 16 and three Final Four appearances.
This season, UW needs some wins down the stretch just to avoid playing on the first day of the Big Ten tournament later this month. Go one-and-done in that event, and the Badgers wouldn’t play a single game in March.
Alvarez takes into account the fact UW lost two key pieces to injury early in the season — sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice (foot) and freshman wing Kobe King (knee) were limited to 10 games — and struggled with a tough schedule early in the season.
The Badgers, who had to replace four starters from a team that went 27-10 last season, exited November with a 3-4 record. Each of those defeats came against teams that were ranked at the time.
Gard went 42-18 in his first two seasons. He took over a 7-5 team after Bo Ryan retired midway through the 2015-16 season and, after starting 1-4 in Big Ten play, guided the Badgers to a tie for third in the conference and a surprising run to the Sweet 16.
“He showed me he can coach that first year,” Alvarez said. “That team, they weren’t hitting on all cylinders, they weren’t playing as a team and he put that team (back) together. He started out with a rough stretch but hung with it and flipped that whole thing around. I’m confident in Greg.”
Alvarez thought so highly of the coach he rewarded Gard with a big raise after the Badgers went to the Sweet 16 again last season, beating defending national champion Villanova, the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, to get there.
Gard originally signed a five-year deal that paid him $1.75 million in 2016-17 with $50,000 increases each additional year.
That deal was amended last spring and approved by the UW Board of Regents over the summer. Gard is now making $2.25 million annually with increases of $100,000 each additional year.
His contract goes through May 31, 2022.
“We’ve got a good coach, we’ve got good facilities and we’ll right the ship,” Alvarez said. “I feel very confident that we will.”
One point Alvarez always tries to drive home when he’s speaking to booster groups is the importance of not taking winning for granted. As a former football coach, that’s a lesson he learned a long time ago.
“I try to tell people,” Alvarez said, “that winning is hard.”
UW fans have been spoiled by a long run of success by the department’s two most prestigious programs.
The football team has gone to a bowl game in 15 consecutive seasons, a run that included a program-record 13 wins this past season.
Alvarez said believes the “law of averages” just caught up with Gard and his team this season.
“Sometimes you have injuries, sometimes it’s scheduling, sometimes things don’t pan out the way you thought and it’s a tough league,” Alvarez said. “All those things fall into place and we’re having one of those (years), we’re just having a rough year. Nobody likes to lose, but it’s reality.”