I want to preface everything by saying that I fully support Greg Gard. I think he’s done a fantastic job and the recent results of the team are more due to bad luck than anything he as a coach can control. With that said, I think it’s important to take a step back and look at each side of the debate without bringing emotions into it. Since I am on the side of keeping Gard, I’m in a position to view the talking points from the other side objectively.
How did we get here?
It seems like every year the Badgers have a game or two that are so ugly that Twitter erupts with calls to replace Greg Gard. Regardless of how the season is going as a whole, the conversation is started due to a couple of those ugly Badger losses that we’ve seen here or there over the last 20 years. You know the losses. Lots of 3’s shot, very few 3’s made. Players with limited athleticism are being exposed. No true go-to scorer to save the day.
These games are far few between historically but have shown up a lot more this year. This squad has lost 7 of their last 10 games and over half of the losses have been on the ugly side. The classic grind-it-out style hasn’t been there. Plenty of Wisconsin teams over the years have lacked star-quality players, but they’ve still won consistently due to hustle and playing within a reliable system. That hasn’t been the case this year.
In 6 full seasons as the head coach of the basketball program, Gard has only finished under .500 one time. During that span, he’s also won two B1G regular season conference titles. This is the main argument of his supporters. Regular season success has been far from the issue. The question that matter is, is that enough? Many believe it isn’t. Many believe post-season success far outweighs that of regular-season consistency.
Bo Ryan had similar complaints for a bit as he could never seem to reach the Final Four. He had a handful of Sweet Sixteens under his belt and an Elite Eight, but it took a special roster to finally reach that Final Four and the Championship the following year. Gard hasn’t been at the helm as long as Ryan was but he hasn’t taken a roster of his own players past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Concerns of Depth
Many have complained about the lack of talent on this year’s team, but the biggest issue has been the lack of depth. One may argue that is from poor recruiting, and to an extent, it is. However, the skill of the players brought in hasn’t been the issue. It was their commitment to the Wisconsin program, at least for some of them. Coaches can’t control everything, but they can control what players they target. If Gard is targeting players that have issues leaving home, then problems may follow.
Following the 2021-2022 season, two foundational players decided to transfer out of Madison. Were Lorne Bowman and Ben Carlson on their way to stardom? Doubtful but they were set up to be key pieces of this year’s rotation. Bowman showed flashes in limited playing time and Carlson was a highly touted recruit that unfortunately dealt with an injury. We also can’t forget about 2021 recruit Matthew Mors who also transferred to be closer to home.
With all of that said, it’s the coach’s job to know how committed a kid is to the program. There will always be situations that no one can predict, but only Bowman falls under that category. The Badger way has always been to bring kids in and develop them. Rarely have we seen freshman start and when they have, it’s mainly been out of necessity. It’s much easier for kids to transfer now but that also means they weren’t aware of their situation when they were recruited.
Depth, or lack thereof, is the main reason for the inconsistent play this year. To an extent, it’s bad luck. On the flip side, this can be avoided if a coach knows more about the players he’s bringing in and is very clear with them on their path to consistent playing time.
Recruiting is the one topic that I see people complain about the most. To a degree, the complaints are warranted. Wisconsin doesn’t recruit with the likes of Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, etc. With that being said, that hasn’t stopped the Badgers from competing with the blue bloods. Instead of spending time trying to get one-and-done players, Wisconsin focuses on kids that fit their scheme.
That’s fine and well when players stay and develop into the players the coaching staff envisions when they recruit them. When they don’t, there is a giant hole on the roster somewhere. God forbid it happens to multiple players. Even though this strategy has worked for Wisconsin, it has limited its ceiling and made its margin for error very small. Since Gard has taken over, he’s actually recruited pretty well (outside of the kids that transferred out). My issue with recruiting is less about it in general, and more about their specific strategy.
It seems like for years, Wisconsin has gone hard on a handful of guys every recruiting cycle. Those players fit the culture of the program, they fit the scheme, and have the winning mentality the Badger coaches love. That’s great when you get the player, but what happens when you don’t? You’re left scrambling for a player that wasn’t high up on the list to fill that scholarship spot. Carrying over scholarships isn’t unheard of but when you need players due to graduation or transfers, your options are limited.
Casting a small net has its benefits. The players know how much they mean to the coaches recruiting them. There’s a lot more one on one time. It’s easier to get to know a handful of players as opposed to a large group. The issues start when those benefits aren’t enough. If all of your resources are put into a few people, then what happens when they choose other schools? Sure there are always diamonds in the rough and late risers but will they feel the love?
The football program for years complained about a lack of resources when compared to the rest of the conference. It wouldn’t at all be shocking if basketball had similar issues. That could also explain why they take the strategy they do. If there were more resources available, would the program be able to open up its reach a bit? It’s very possible. By casting a wider net, your potential of totally whiffing becomes much smaller. For a program like Wisconsin, swinging and missing causes major issues.
Outside of recruiting, Greg Gard’s results in the NCAA tournament are always the second thing to come up. On one hand, it’s a good thing that he is getting there consistently. On the other, for a school with a history of success like Wisconsin, is just making the tournament good enough?
Winning B1G titles is great, but making deep runs in March is even better. In a one-and-done tournament format, anything is possible. That’s why we’ve seen less talented Wisconsin teams make Sweet 16 runs and more talented teams lose in the first round. The Badgers’ grind-it-out style has typically caused issues for schools that are used to a more free-flowing game style. So far under Gard, there haven’t been many March Madness highs to write home about.
With the remaining Bo Ryan players sure, Gard had some success as those teams went to back-to-back Sweet 16’s. Since then though, they haven’t advanced past the first weekend and missed the tournament in 2018. For a program that had gone Final 4, Championship game, Sweet 16, and Sweet 16 in the 4 years prior, that’s a bit of a letdown. That stretch of runs, however, shows what can happen when this Wisconsin program hits on its recruits and they stick around to fully develop.
Bo Ryan coached for 15 full seasons before leaving part of the way through his 16th season. His teams made the tournament every single year. They also made it past the first weekend 7 of those years, 8 if you include the year he retired. Gard only has 5 full seasons with mostly his players on the roster but a season missing the tournament on top of 3 first weekend exits isn’t a great look. Ryan at this point had a Sweet 16 and Elite 8th appearance.
It’s not totally fair to compare Gard to Ryan as the landscape of college athletics is completely different now. However, the Wisconsin athletic director Christ McIntosh seems ready for Wisconsin to consistently compete with the big boys. He made a bold move with the football program and it wouldn’t be all that shocking to see him do something similar with basketball. I think the Chryst and Gard situations are completely different, but we now know McIntosh isn’t afraid to make moves.
In the end, I don’t think Gard has anything to worry about. He has an exciting recruiting class coming in this year and if things go the Badgers way, their 2024 class could be even better. Eventually, McIntosh will need to see some post-season success but the two B1G regular season titles have likely given Gard the benefit of the doubt for now.
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