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Are Badgers fans right to have a case of Bennet envy?

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No offseason, or for that matter, in-season, topic surrounding Wisconsin Badgers basketball was hotter in 2018-19 than what to make of the Gard era after nearly five years.

Some have become enraged at the lack of recruiting wins at the highest level and the seeming shortcoming of head coach Greg Gard’s in-game decision making.

Wisconsin basketball feels like it is regressing rather than progressing on so many levels. There’s the major inconsistencies on offense, a lack of free throw shooting and a seemingly overall lack of athleticism to get UW out of a jam if needed.

Let’s just say a vocal group of Badgers fans are very much in the anti-Gard mode. Most in that camp will point to the Virginia Cavaliers and their head coach Tony Bennett and say, why can’t the Badgers do that?

It’s easy to have program envy when the guy many wanted at Wisconsin a long time ago just cut down the nets for a national championship with another team.

More importantly, he did it with the very style of hard-nosed defense and a slower-paced offense that Wisconsin has been famous for for awhile now.

All of that got me to thinking…why not take a look at both programs and coaches head-to-head and see if facts back up the arguments for or against Gard?

After all, the offseason is all about taking stock. So, let’s take that deep dive.

What Does History Tell Us?

First off, the Badgers have made an appearance in four Final Fours as a program, which puts them in with 27 other programs to make at least that many in program history.

Wisconsin is tied with Arizona, Kansas State, LSU, UNLV and Utah at four. Leading the way with 20 is North Carolina, who won in 2017 and has made three final four appearances in the past decade.

But, beyond that since the 2000 Final Four, where the Badgers lost to eventual national champions Michigan State, there have been eight schools to go to back-to-back Final Fours.

Those schools would be Michigan State (2000, 2001 and 2009, 2010), Maryland (2001, 2002), Kansas (2002, 2003), Florida (2006, 2007), UCLA (2007, 2008), Butler (2010, 2011), Kentucky (2011, 2012), Louisville (2012, 2013) and your Wisconsin Badgers (2014, 2015).

Considering there have been 20 tournaments (including the 2000 edition), that means 80 possible teams and Wisconsin is one of just nine teams to have occupied a spot in back-to-back Final Fours.

Yes, that was four years ago, but just 11 percent of the teams were back-to-back Final Four participants overall. That’s some rarified air and a good reminder of just how difficult it was to do what the Badgers did.

Getting to that level and doing it over and over again is a very difficult ask, even for the most blue-blood of programs. So, let’s take that in to consideration.

In fact, just 37 total teams have made an appearance in a Final Four since 2000. Wisconsin is in the top 5 for most Final Four appearances with three — tied with Kentucky, Louisville, Syracuse, UCLA and Villanova.

Michigan State leads all schools with seven, UNC is next at six and they are followed by Kansas (5), and Duke and UConn (4).

Virginia on the other hand has made just one appearance in the Final Four since 2000. It was a national title winning appearance, but the point of longevity of a program is important here.

Gard vs. Bennett’s First 5 Years

Which brings us to today, with Greg Gard fully in charge and leading this program without many legacy recruits from the Bo Ryan era around.

Can Gard get the Badgers back to that promised land? It’s the million-dollar question around Madison and the Badger fandom nationwide.

UW fans had a taste of the blue-blood air and they want some more. That’s understandable and its where the comparison to Virginia and Tony Bennett comes in to play.

Could the answer simply be that Greg Gard is not Tony Bennett? That’s to say one coach is not like the other.

I think so.

Let’s remember the Wisconsin gig was Gard’s first ever head coaching gig anywhere. Bennett was born to be a coach, it literally is in his DNA.

His father got the Badgers to the 2000 Final Four, led one of the 90’s biggest upsets while coaching at Wisconsin-Green Bay and his family has had a historic amount of success while coaching at Wisconsin-Stevens Point as well.

The level of success running through the veins of the Bennett family is scary to be honest.

But, success just doesn’t come because you were born around quality coaching or playing. It comes from hard work, and to that end, Tony has certainly put in his fair share of work.

He wasn’t handed anything when he started coaching other than an opportunity to prove himself to his father.

Bennett won wherever he went, including on staff at Wisconsin and when he eventually took over for his dad at the basketball powerhouse known as Washington State. While there, Bennett went 69-33 and never had a losing season in his three years before leaving for Virginia.

But, people have quickly forgotten that Bennett was not an overnight success at Virginia.

Let’s take the first five years of Bennett’s career at UVA to that of Gard’s at Wisconsin for example. Bennett had a record of 106-60 (.638), while Gard has a record of 80-47 (.630) in just 4.5 years.

That winning percentage is nearly identical and so are a few other things. Both Gard and Bennett missed at least one NCAA tournament (Bennett’s Cavs actually missed 3). However, Gard has two Sweet 16 tournament runs compared to just one for Bennett after the first five seasons at the helm.

It all adds up to two coaches who look pretty similar on paper over the first parts of their tenures at Virginia and Wisconsin. Perhaps there’s another piece to the puzzle that is missing for Gard to be as successful as Bennet?

There comes comparison point No. 3…recruiting.

Recruiting

Perhaps nothing has driven the doubters of Gard more crazy than what has, or more appropriately, hasn’t happened on the recruiting trail in the first five years of Gard at the helm.

In one sense, you can probably throw the 2016 class out of the window, given Gard only had a half of a recruiting cycle to get things going his way.

But, beyond that class, the Badgers have really struggled to elevate their recruiting game and thus make them more than an occasional contender for a national championship.

The fact of the matter is, Wisconsin got lucky that Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes developed like the coaching staff thought and that Sam Dekker had an affinity for the state of Wisconsin. Those three formed the backbone of a team capable of competing at the highest levels.

But, where has that player been under Gard’s leadership? Yes, Ethan Happ was fun to watch, but he was a Bo Ryan recruit first and foremost.

Maybe Kobe King is that guy, but his redshirt freshman year wasn’t a tell-tale sign of a player capable of taking over a program and leading it back to the promised land immediately.

There were glimpses of that being possible, but nothing sustained this past season.

In fact, no such signing has emerged as a must-see player for the Badgers to date. D’Mitrik Trice has been good in spurts, Brad Davison struggled to find his rhythm as the season went on this past year and about the only one that has emerged as a real star is big man Nate Reuvers.

He came to Wisconsin as the No. 66 ranked player in the country, and after putting on some weight and getting all the knowledge in a true freshman season, Reuvers became a go-to player on both ends of the court.

But, showing that one recruit can be the backbone of the program isn’t going to cut it. Not when you realize the losses that happened along the way.

Wisconsin lost out to Kentucky for Tyler Herro, Maryland for Diamond Stone and never had a chance with in-state big man Joey Hauser. All of those loses felt like a black eye for the program.

But, the biggest misses have come from the Badgers not being able to close the deal with some of the other big names they identified and went after early on.

Those names include point guard DJ Carton (Ohio State) and Zeke Nnaji (Arizona) in the 2019 class, as well as Payton Pritchard (Oregon) and Zavier Simpson (Michigan) in the 2017 class.

Land one or two of those players and there isn’t much room for the critics to talk. But, the reality is that Gard has yet to close on all but one of the big names offered to date.

This is a huge offseason with the Hauser brothers back on the market and Wisconsin named a finalist by 5-star Jalen Johnson. Getting one of the two situations to go in UW’s favor could be the game-changer needed to elevate this program back towards the top.

On the flip side, how did Bennett build his national championship winning squad? He was able to win on the recruiting trail with bigger names than the Badgers have ever had under Gard and it appears to have finally paid off.

But, there were some serious misses early on in that timeframe. In Bennett’s first class ever, he took the commitments of two top 100 players in KT Harrell and James Johnson.

Two years later and both players were gone, with Harrell off to Auburn and Johnson going to San Diego State and then Liberty as a graduate transfer.

The next year Bennett hit big time on the No. 98 ranked player in the country in guard Malcom Brogdon, but missed on No. 112 ranked Paul Jesperson, who ended up up transferring to Northern Iowa.

In total, Bennett had seven players commit to the program that were in the Top 100 in his first 5 seasons. Of those seven players, four ended up transferring away from the program with none of them making a massive change in the programs they landed at outside of Jesperson.

Only two could be considered successes, as Justin Anderson is in the NBA and was a first round draft pick of the Atlanta Hawks and Mike Tobey spent a few seasons in the NBA before moving overseas.

Over the course of his first five seasons, Bennett may have looked like a winner on paper, but he struggled to keep players in the program.

It was only after those initial struggles that Bennett found his form on the recruiting trail and got wins like Mamadi Diakite, Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter — three of those coming in just one recruiting class.

Final Verdict

There is no doubt that Tony Bennett has built a near perennial contender in the ACC. What he’s managed to do there is special and as a native Wisconsinite, it’s equally hard to not play the what-if game.

But, the reality is the two coaches have proven to be on similar paths through the first five years as the head coach at these respective schools.

Only time will ultimately tell if Gard is up to the task of making the Badgers back in to true Big Ten and national championship contenders. But, gone are the days where just making the NCAA tournament and finishing fourth every year in the Big Ten would be good enough.

There is and should be pressure on Gard and this program to produce at a higher and more consistent level. Let’s give this coaching staff the chance to do it.

Winning either or both of the recruitments for the transfer of the Hauser brothers or top 5 national 2020 recruit Jalen Johnson would go a long way in solidifying the change in the program.

But, we’ll have a while to wait for those answers it seems.

Until then, there are good lessons to be learned by how Bennett built his program following those first 5 seasons in Charlottesville.

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Badgers Basketball

Badgers basketball lands pair of 4-star players in 2021 class

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Witnessing a win over the Northwestern Wildcats must have done the trick, because two of Wisconsin’s biggest targets in the 2021 class both committed on Sunday.

First to commit was the more surprising name, as Top247 point guard Chucky Hepburn.

The No. 23 ranked point guard and No. 141 ranked player in the country per the 247Sports composite rankings chose the Badgers over offers from Minnesota, Nebraska, and Creighton. He also was beginning to see interest from some of the bigger names in college basketball, but chose to pick a team that had been on him for awhile.

“I called coach Gard 30 minutes ago and committed,” Hepburn told Badger247. “The education part was really great. I loved all the academic advisors are part of the basketball program and how they work with them.

“With the basketball side, I fit perfectly with the system they run. I feel like the assistant coaches will help me get where I want to be, because they all played professionally before.”

But, not long after that news broke, word of the biggest target on UW’s list committing would break as well.

Wisconsin would add 4-star forward Matthew Mors to the mix as well.

Mors comes to the Badgers ranked as the No. 115 player in the country and the No. 22 power forward in the nation as well.

The Badgers had been on Mors since his eighth grade year and the persistence paid off, despite other offers across the Big Ten and Big 12 coming to him.

Mors chose Wisconsin over names like Creighton, Iowa State, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, TCU, and more.

With these two pledges, the Badgers have solidified their 2021 recruiting class rather early and they hit on all their top priority prospects as well.

Hepburn and Mors join fellow 4-star player in 6-8 power forward Chris Hodges. With three 4-star players to their name, the Badgers currently own the No. 1 recruiting class in the country.

Yes, Wisconsin isn’t likely to own that No. 1 ranking by the end of the class, but there’s no doubt that the Badgers have done something special in the 2021 class.

It is a huge statement for head coach Greg Gard after the program missed out on some massive in-state names in the past few classes. Many had begun to wonder if the Badgers could ever hit on big targets with Gard as the head coach.

Those thoughts should be put to rest with this class and how the Badgers closed out the 2020 class prior to this.

It should also be noted that assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft was the lead recruiter on each of the last four overall commitments for the Badgers, including 2020 names Steven Crowl and Ben Carlson.

Of course, we won’t know for a while how these big recruiting numbers stack up once they get on the floor for some time. But, winning on the recruiting trail like this puts the Badgers in a much better spot to be competitive for a very long time than previously thought.

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Badgers Basketball

Carlson commits to Badgers 2020 basketball class

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It appears the 2020 Wisconsin Badgers basketball class has come to a close.

A day after forward Steven Crowl committed, we now have word that top target Ben Carlson, a fellow Minnesota native, has committed to the Badgers as well.

The four-star center chose the Badgers over a who’s who of basketball offers in the Midwest including Ohio State, Xavier, Stanford, Purdue, Creighton, Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa State, Kansas State, Wake Forest, and others.

Much like Crowl, Carlson took his official visit to Madison earlier this month for the Central Michigan football game.

Carlson comes to the Badgers as the No. 15 ranked forward in the entire country per the 247Sports composite rankings, the No. 82 ranked player overall and with a .967 grade from the composite.

He was high up the Badgers list for a long time, even as they targeted other highly rate options at forward like Jalen Johnson. However, as the board began to shake out, it was clear the Badgers wanted Carlson no matter what Johnson or anyone else was going to do in this class.

It appears that the relationship that Carlson formed with the current roster while on his visit is what put the Badgers over the top in this lengthly recruitment.

“A big focus was on getting to know the players, so I hung out with them a lot,” Carlson told Badger247. “They talked about how the coaching staff tells you straight-up how everything is going to be, they don’t sugarcoat anything. They told me about how much they liked it there.”

“I had a pretty good idea of how Wisconsin was going in,” he continued. “The biggest thing was getting to know the players and I really liked them. I know about the history and the campus, but getting to know the players was big for sure.”

Adding this type of nationally known name to an already big class is huge for the Badgers. In fact, UW has the No. 4 ranked class per the 247Sports composite team rankings.

It would be the highest the Badgers have ever finished in the rankings, with the 2006 class under Bo Ryan the next highest at No. 20 in the country.

Wisconsin is getting easily one of the most skilled big men in the class and an instant impact type of player. What has been a question mark up front could easily be a strength of this team quickly thanks to Carlson and Crowl’s commitments to the class.

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Badgers Basketball

Badgers add 4-star center to 2020 basketball class

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What could be a historic recruiting class for the Wisconsin Badgers got another boost on Tuesday as 4-star center Steven Crowl verbally committed to the Badgers.

He went on his official visit this past weekend and apparently it was all he needed to see.

Crowl has since cancelled trips to other contenders like Colorado, Iowa, and Northern Iowa. He also had an offer from the in-state Gophers and was thinking about a visit there.

However, his official visit for the Central Michigan football game weekend was all he needed to pull the trigger on a commitment to Gard and the Badgers.

Crowl joins an already loaded Badgers 2020 class that includes in-state star Johnny Davis and his twin brother Jordan Davis, as well as the No. 25 ranked point guard in the country according to the 247Sports composite rankings, Lorne Bowman.

This class also already has preferred walk-on Carter Gilmore, who chose that offer over other mid-major D1 offers and saw his recruitment pick up considerably in the July evaluation period.

While his name wasn’t a hot one on the recruiting trail, he was a late riser and currently sits as the No. 102 ranked player in the class overall and the No. 17 center in the nation per the 247Sports composite rankings.

The St. Paul, Minn. native is also continuing the pipeline of players coming from the cross-border rival Gopher state. He comes from the same AAU program — Minnesota D1 — that produced both Tyler Wahl and Nate Reuvers.

With Crowl in the fold, Wisconsin has added 12 players from the state of Minnesota in the 247Sports composite era, according to Badger247.

When you take a look at Crowl’s film, what you see is someone that has begun to both physically and mentally mature. He’s got the skill set that UW likes out of their bigs as well, with a nice looking shot from the outside.

However, what you also see on tape is someone that may need to take a year to adjust to the college game and that may be perfectly fine with the coaching staff as they still will have Nate Reuvers and Tyler Wahl to work with up front as starters.

It will be interesting to see how Crowl digests the speed of the college game early on. If he can adjust to that and the physicality, he may indeed find himself in the rotation quickly though.

He is certainly in the mold of what has become the classic Wisconsin big man.

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Badgers Basketball

Former Badger Jon Leur traded to Milwaukee Bucks

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They say you can always go home, and for one former Wisconsin Badger he’s coming back to a state he called home for four years.

Former Badgers forward Jon Leuer was traded early on Thursday morning from the Detroit Pistons to the Milwaukee Bucks. In exchange for Leuer, the Bucks gave up the 30th overall pick in tonight’s NBA Draft and traded away Tony Snell.

Last season, Leuer played in 41 games for the Pistons and made just one start. He averaged 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds per game in his ninth season in the NBA.

Leuer is a very similar player to Snell, but comes at a much more team-friendly salary.

In trading away Snell, the Bucks free up an additional $4 million in salary this year and another $12 million next year.

This could be seen as a way for the Bucks to pony up the big money that Khris Middleton wants from the team in order to stay in Milwaukee.

As for Leuer, he is 17th on the all-time Badgers scoring list with 1,376 points to his name. He also finished his career with 551 rebounds.

Leuer’s final season in Madison was his best statistically, as he helped lead the 2010-11 Badgers team to the Sweet 16. He averaged 18.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game that year.

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