Just when most fans were ready to leave the 2017-18 Wisconsin Badgers basketball season for dead, they have suddenly come to life. Or have they?
A 71-61 win over Indiana to restart Big Ten play was certainly promising, as it extended UW’s win streak to five games and puts them at 2-1 in Big Ten as the team heads on a three-game road trip over the next week.
In a season in which the Badgers have already lost seven games, being on the plus side of the win-loss column is certainly a good way to start of January. After the win over Indiana there was one word that was buzzing around the Badgers locker room — confidence.
"It's a huge win for us just to get our confidence rolling"
Make it five straight wins
On, WWWWWisconsin pic.twitter.com/03f5nRH4SR
— Wisconsin Basketball (@BadgerMBB) January 3, 2018
It’s good to hear that from players like Brad Davison, because his production is certainly going to be important the rest of the way. But, does that alone mean the Badgers are going to be making a run in the Big Ten and towards an NCAA tournament berth?
There is some reason to believe that UW can make that run, but also a ton of reasons to be cautious about this team being able to battle with some of the better teams in the Big Ten going forward. Let’s take a look at the pro’s and con’s if you will.
Reasons to believe they’ve turned the corner:
Confidence can be a season-changing thing, even if that confidence boost comes from beating some really bad non-conference foes and one of the Big Ten’s lower division teams this year. As we noted above, this team is playing with a ton of confidence as of late and with a young team sometimes that is all that is needed to turn the corner.
Some of that confidence comes from players who may not be getting major minutes stepping up and taking advantage of playing time. T.J. Schlundt has done that and Aleem Ford continues to grow in to his role and become more confident in his game as the season goes along. To that point, Ford has scored no fewer than nine points and is averaging a healthy 11.0 points per game, while shooting 57.1 percent from the field (16-28).
Few players in the Big Ten mean as much to his team than Happ means to the Badgers. It can be seen in his recent play, as he’s been the catalyst for UW’s turnaround as of late. His performance in the win against Indiana was incredible. He had 28 points on 11 of 17 shooting to go along with 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocks.
Few players in the country can do that once, but Happ does it consistently. While it would be ideal to not have to rely on him, the reality is that his skill set is so rare he has to be the focal point of the offense. Whether it’s his court vision, his strength down low or ability to make the big pass to open teammates, Happ is playing at a much better level today than he did against Marquette. It’s no wonder Wisconsin is winning a lot as of late.
Reason’s to not believe they’ve turned the corner:
Defense is still spotty
There’s no running away from the fact that the 2017-18 team isn’t going to play good defense at all. It’s strange to see and say, but the reality is UW . It’s a major problem because that means the Badgers have to rely on their offense to win games. That a major problem to say the least, as Wisconsin comes in to this weekend’s games ranked No. 7 in scoring defense (65.1 points per game) and dead last in scoring offense (70.3 points per game).
Of course, those numbers are a bit skewed by non-conference play, but a deeper dive in to the Badgers schedule shows a troubling trend against quality competition. Wisconsin has played seven games against teams from major conferences (Ohio State and Penn State included) and they gave up an average of 71.4 points per game. Take out the anomaly of the low-scoring affair against Virginia and the average jumps to 76.0 points per game. Wisconsin can’t do that against Big Ten opponents and hope to outscore them to win, it hasn’t worked in the past and won’t work with this inconsistent offense.
Western Kentucky (68th RPI, 79th KenPom) is the highest rated win of the bunch and that was a one-point barn burner. The other four opponents paint a brutal picture. Chicago State is No. 297 in RPI and No. 345 in KenPom, Green Bay is No. 302 and No. 293 respectively, UMass-Lowell is No. 303 and No. 299 respectively and finally Indiana comes in at No. 143 and No. 93 at this point in the season.
That’s not exactly the cream of the crop and UW should have easily won three of those four games against teams not names Western Kentucky. So, should we really be impressed by this current win streak?
Personally, this feels like a team that is turning the corner. Does that mean they are going to compete for a Big Ten regular season title? No.
What it does mean is that I can see this team competing at a much higher level than most of us were thinking after watching Marquette humiliate the Badgers just about a month ago. If you would’ve told me this team losses Brevin Pritzl prior to a Big Ten game and they would find a way to win I would’ve thought you crazy. Instead, they got plenty of production from other places and a brilliant day from Ethan Happ.
The confidence is brimming, and in the years covering this sport, the one thing I know is that a confident team is a dangerous one come January and beyond.
What this team needed was a role like this, even if the competition level hasn’t been great. Learn what it feels like to play at this level and apply that against better competition. I’m betting the Badgers get closer to making the NCAA tournament than anyone thought they would in December.
Let’s see if they can get some positive results on the three-game swing against Rutgers, Nebraska and No. 20 Purdue. That will be the real test and a 2-1 road trip would go a long way towards solidifying a turnaround to the season.
Taylor Currie announces transfer from Badgers program
And then there was one.
The 2018 Wisconsin Badgers basketball recruiting class had three players, but in the span of a month there is but one member of that group remaining.
On Tuesday, it was announced that 6-8 forward Taylor Currie will transfer from the program after redshirting last season.
He joins point guard Tai Strickland in the leaving the program.
That also means that 7-foot center Joe Hedstrom, who took a grayshirt offer and will go on scholarship next season, as the lone member of the 2018 class still with the program.
It also means that the Badgers will be down to just nine scholarship players as of now for the upcoming season, leaving plenty of space for a big haul in the offseason if they want to.
Wisconsin already came in to the offseason looking to even out the scholarship situation between the 2019 and 2020 class. Now, it may be able to really accomplish adding good pieces in 2019 and saving room for 2020.
The Badgers may fill two of the unused scholarships with Joey and Same Hauser, who are transferring from Marquette.
A decision will be coming from the Stevens Point natives in the next few weeks as they are scheduled to visit both Michigan State and Virginia.
Neither of those schools currently have the room for both brothers to join up, something the Badgers clearly don’t have to worry about.
As for Currie, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, he’ll head back to his native Michigan and play and Mott Community College in Flint, where he will still have two years to play there should he chose to use those years.
Wisconsin isn’t likely to limit its looks at the transfer market to just the Hauser’s either. There is a glaring and immediate need for experience up front, so the Badgers could fill that with a graduate transfer.
That was something the coaching staff was kicking around prior to any transfer out of the program anyway. Now, the Badgers have the flexibility to add that extra one-year player to the mix.
Stay tuned for the next few weeks, as things could move fast on the transfer front.
Are Badgers fans right to have a case of Bennet envy?
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.
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.
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.
REPORT: Badgers amongst 4 schools getting visits from Hauser Bros.
Simply put, no offseason storyline will get more attention for the Wisconsin Badgers than the second pursuit of the Hauser brothers.
After announcing they were leaving the Marquette program a few weeks ago, plenty of speculation pointed to them landing in Madison. Now we have confirmation they are certainly in the running.
According to a report by CBS Sports Jon Rothstein, Wisconsin is amongst four schools that will get a visit from the brothers prior to them making a decision. UW is joined by Iowa, Michigan State and Virginia according to the report.
There’s no doubt that ties are strong between the Badgers and the Hauser family.
Now head coach and then assistant coach, Greg Gard, was hard after Sam in the 2016 recruiting class. However, with a small scholarship pool to work with, Bo Ryan decided to go with a point guard and ended up taking D’Mitrik Trice once it was all said and done.
It arguably was the biggest reason in not getting Joey to sign in the 2018 class as well.
But, just which of the four has the best chance to land the duo? This is where the Badgers could have the biggest advantage.
As of right now, UW has two scholarships open to take the brothers for the 2019-20 season.
Iowa has a personal connection in Fran McCafferey, who closely recruited both players while they were in high school and have a few players whom the Hauser’s would be comfortable with.
Additionally, the style of play in Iowa City is very similar to that of Marquette and if playing style is the key factor, the Hawkeyes could be attractive.
On the other hand, fellow Big Ten team, Michigan State, seems to be a pie-in-the-sky scenario. The Spartans only lost one of the two players they would have needed in order to land Joey and Sam. Instead, only Nick Ward is gone to the NBA after hiring an agent.
Add in three scholarship players coming in to the program and the Spartans have just one open spot available. Sure, maybe one of them pays their own way for a year before joining on scholarship in 2020-21, but that would be a significant hurdle to overcome.
Virginia could be the front-runner, in large part thanks to the decisions of its three biggest names from this year’s national championship team. De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome have all declared and hired an agent.
A few weeks ago, that wasn’t so certain. With those three scholarships opening up, only one official signee in the 2019 class and another player entering his name in the transfer portal this could be the Badgers biggest competition.
The question comes down to what the Hauser brothers are going to value most in their next destination. Will personal connections matter more or will getting to play for a program that just won a national championship matter more? What about distant from home?
All of this will be settled shortly, but don’t be surprised to see this be a Badgers vs. Cavaliers battle for the brothers services.
Big Ten hands out opponent assignments for Badgers basketball in 2019-20
The 2018-19 season has been over for just a few weeks now, but the Big Ten is already looking forward to the 2019-20 season.
On Wednesday afternoon it announced the conference opponents for the 20-game slate for each team.
With the switch to the 20-game conference slate last season it means every team will play three team only at home, another three only on the road and the other seven teams in a home-and-home scenario.
Fans will see Illinois, Maryland and Northwestern travel to the Kohl Center for the lone game between them. Wisconsin will travel to Iowa, Michigan and Penn State only.
That leaves home-and-home games against Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue and Rutgers.
Wisconsin’s faithful followers will see five of the Big Ten’s representatives in this past year’s NCAA tournament come to the Kohl Center at some point next season.
Only Michigan shows up as a lone road game against a Big Ten team to make the tournament this past year as well.
UW will also host Fred Hoiberg, the new coach at Nebraska, for the first time and that should certainly be interesting.
The Big Ten has not released a full schedule of the order of games, but it looks like the Badgers are going to have to fight hard given the teams they will face in home-and-home scenarios.
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