The Improbable Turnaround Of Wisconsin Basketball

I was at the Wisconsin Badgers’ season opener back on Friday, November 13th and it was a true horror show. The Badgers let Western Illinois—a team currently 10-17—shoot 54% from the field, outplay them up and down the Kohl Center floor and steal a 69-67 upset.

It was a vivid demonstration of what all of us knew, but didn’t want to fully acknowledge—the year following consecutive Final Four trips and the loss of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker might get awfully ugly.

A loss to Georgetown at Madison Square Garden was so poorly played on both sides that it prompted me to text a friend that Bo Ryan and John Thompson III should meet for the postgame handshake and say something to the effect of “see you back for here for the NIT semis.” And before the non-conference schedule was over, that assessment would seem generous.

Wisconsin lost to UW-Milwaukee, lost to Marquette and after a win over Texas A&M Corpus-Christi on December 15, Ryan stepped down. Greg Gard, the long-time assistant stepped into the interim role.

Gard was strongly rumored not to have the backing of AD Barry Alvarez for the permanent job and the career assistant had to turn the season around with eight freshmen, along with point guard Bronson Koenig struggling with an increased role and forward Nigel Hayes seeming to be not-quite-ready for star status.

The Badgers began to look better as Big Ten play opened. They played competitively in a loss at home to Purdue. They lost nail-biters at home to Maryland and on the road at Indiana. I liked the way the team looked and hoped that Gard would get an opportunity to coach these kids for a little longer. But they had the usual problems young teams do with closing games and after enough close loss at Northwestern the record stood at 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten.

The notion of making the NCAA Tournament was laughable and the farthest thing from my mind when I watched a good Wisconsin-Michigan State game on January 17. The Badgers pulled out a late 77-76 win. It was my hope that as the young players grew a little more they could start closing these games out and a dramatic turnaround in the W-L record could happen fairly fast…like next year for example.

But they kept coming. Ethan Happ, the freshman center, kept growing into one of the best big men in the Big Ten. Hayes continued to step up his game. Vitto Brown showcased a consistently sharp 17-foot jump shot from the top of the circle that the offense excels at getting him. And Zak Showalter, the kind of underrated spark plug that drives a team like Wisconsin, kept taking charges, hitting the deck and otherwise being an exceptionally fun player to root for.

And the team coalesced behind Gard. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 games. Wisconsin has gone on the road to conference title contenders Iowa and Maryland gotten wins. They beat Indiana, who currently leads the Big Ten, in overtime at the Kohl Center. In an odds-defying turnaround, the Badgers are listed as a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi in his February 29 projections. At 19-11, Wisconsin likely needs just one more win to seal an NCAA berth whose very suggestion would have prompted laughter from me a month ago.

I was skeptical, but open-minded, regarding Gard’s prospects as a head coach. Now I’ll be hostile and intolerant if he doesn’t get a long-term contract. Even if a fade happens this week and in the conference tournament that costs Wisconsin the NCAA bid, the interim coach has overseen a remarkable turnaround and made the Badgers—again—one of the inspiring stories in college basketball.