After a promising start to the 2022/2023 college basketball season, the Badgers have hit a bit of a skid. Depending on who you ask, the blame may fall one way or another. It also may depend on where you look. Twitter, and I’m sure other social media platforms, are putting this all on coach Greg Gard.
Even though Greg Gard’s team has won two out the last three season long conference championship, he always seems to find himself in the crosshairs of the casual Wisconsin basketball fan. Do I think he should be absolved from any blame? Absolutely not. With that said, this team has performed very well when healthy. Unfortunately as of late, key players have been forced to sit out due to injuries and those games have resulted in losses. Lack of depth has been a huge issue for Wisconsin the last two seasons, which was to be expected. Does that fall on the coach? To an extent, yes. However in this case, it appears more like bad luck and timing than anything.
The Badger Way
The Badgers have always found success by having seasoned teams. They aren’t the program that is going to get one and done players and as fans, we can usually see when the special seasons are coming based on potential and how many years the core have left. They’ve always been great with the “next man up” mentality. They always seem to have a couple of seniors every year, but they also have done a wonderful job of having the next in line gain experience so the transition is seamless, at least to an extent.
Not every Badgers team has been special, especially after what we saw the 2013/2014 and 2014/2014 teams do. The teams have always been competitive though, with some seasons leading to more fan excitement than others. The point is, this program has always been about consistency. There’s a reason why they seem to always find a way to finish in the top 4 in the conference, regardless of how much or little talent they seem to have.
Where it Went Wrong
Even though seniors have been a huge part of the Badgers success over the years, we have very rarely seen lineups dominated by them. Wisconsin found themselves in that situation for the 2020/2021 season. Every single starter was a senior (Davison ended up coming back for one more year). Normally, that would mean that season resulted in a great B1G finish and a deep tournament run. Neither of those things happened. The Badgers finished 6th in the B1G and didn’t make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
The results of that season were disappointing, but it was the negative impact it had on the normal flow of Wisconsin lineups that we are now seeing. The only underclassman ready for a bigger role was Tyler Wahl. I’m not including Johnny Davis here because he didn’t follow the typical Wisconsin timeline, even though he was a huge reason why last season wasn’t a disaster.
Even though the 2020 recruiting class has produced Crowl and the Davis brothers, there were also two big misses which the program isn’t at fault for. We unfortunately had to see 4 star power forward Ben Carlson and point guard Lorne Bowman transfer out. Carlson struggled to find his footing but Bowman showed a lot of potential when he saw the floor. It’s also not shocking Carlson struggled as most Badgers big men make the jump heading into their junior year. Between those two and the loss of Matthew Mors, the Badgers have lost key recruits to the portal.
Some may try and blame Gard for this, but in two cases, it was just players looking to be closer to home. Even though the Badgers have done well to plug holes themselves with the portal, it isn’t as reliable as their recruit and develop strategy that has worked so well for so long. Vogt last year was a solid add but was only eligible for one year. Isaac Lindsey has added depth but it’s not likely he ever develops into a major contributor, along with Kamari McGee. Jahcobi Neath is someone that often gets forgotten about as he’s battled injuries from day one as a Badger. The only transfer that has come in and has shown the ability to help right away and for more than a season is Max Klesmit.
The Badgers offensive system will likely never be conducive to bringing in big time transfers. What the program can do, is get recruits to buy in. They rarely get high end recruits either, but the guys they do get believe in the system and it works. It’s easier to have an ecosystem of experienced players mentoring their replacements year after year than relying on the transfer portal. Unfortunately for our Badgers, the landscape of college basketball has changed.
Where Does That Leave Us?
This program is still in a good spot. I know it’s hard to believe that with how ugly some of the games have been this year, but the program is back to doing what made it so consistently good for so long. Having a starting roster of 5 seniors is great in theory, but there has been major fall out because of that. The roster behind them was loaded with freshman or players that never had the chance of seeing the floor outside of blowouts.
The current lack of depth issue isn’t a Gard issue, it’s a timing issue. Between the senior laden season and three key losses in the portal, things have been thrown out of rhythm. To Gard’s credit, he has recruited players that can contribute very early on. Sure, some of them have been forced to, but the Badgers have remained competitive at a time when most programs would struggle. We’ve also seen young players develop quickly. If you’ve watched this team consistently this year and don’t see the potential, then I’m not sure what to tell you.
Ilver could be exciting once the game slows down for him. Hodges, even though raw, is a big body that could develop into a reliable part of the rotation. Essegian has been great in his first year and will benefit more than anyone from a roster with more weapons. We also can’t overlook the continued growth by Crowl, who was forced into the fire last year and the reliable play of Hepburn who was forced to start from day one.
I understand this program can be frustrating. I want to see them dominate just as much as the next guy. As much as it probably pains some of you to read, the current issues aren’t Gard’s fault. If anything, he’s the reason why they are 4-4 in the B1G and not below .500. There isn’t a ton of experienced talent on this team yet they more often than not win close games. That happens because of coaching, not luck.
This program will continue to work back towards the cycle they were on before the 2020 season. With consistent recruiting classes with obvious contributors, it’s only a matter of time before the depth gets back to normal. For schools like Wisconsin, their deep tournament run seasons are all about timing and to be honest, luck. You need the experience, talent and depth to all sync up at the same time. I know people are thinking that’s the problem, and to an extent, I agree. However, there aren’t many realistic options to replace Gard with and ever fewer would fit into the Wisconsin culture.