The Big Ten basketball season is winding down, and with one game left to play for most teams we have a regular season champion. Conference play has also provided those of us in the media a really difficult choice for Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.
Usually this honor sorts itself out pretty easily, but in the 2015-16 season there were two big surprises. Those surprises were the Indiana Hoosiers taking the regular season championship and the rise of the once-dead Wisconsin Badgers.
With the play of their teams, head coaches Tom Crean (Indiana) and Greg Gard (Wisconsin) have each made a serious case to be named B1G Coach of the Year. So, who should the award really go to?
Let’s break down the cases for and against each man, shall we?
The Case For Tom Crean
A 10-3 start to the season has turned in to a Big Ten championship-winning team, something that has only been done one other time under Crean. If winning a regular season title with two games to go isn’t a model of consistency, then what else is?
There was no choke-job, no head-scratching losses. What there was was a team who fought through injuries and adversity from the offseason on to become a true champion. Crean deserves a ton of credit for figuring out the formula that works early and sticking with it even with a guy like James Blackmon Jr. gone after non-conference play was finished.
Yogi Ferrell finally put it all together in his final campaign, while the team had four double-digit scorers and three of them playing all season long. It was a true team effort in 2015-16, unlike anything we’ve seen from the promising Hoosiers of the past.
Voting for the coach of the Big Ten regular season champions seems like a pretty solid bet.
The Case Against Tom Crean
Is it really that surprising to see the Hoosiers at the top of the Big Ten standings? After all, they did have stars like Yogi Ferrell, James Blackmon, Jr. and Troy Williams to work with. Even BTN analyst Jon Crispin had them No. 2 in his preseason poll.
The unofficial BTN poll also had the Hoosiers 2nd too. Going 10-3 in non-conference play also proved to be a pretty good indicator this was a team ready to compete for a Big Ten championship. It isn’t like this was an improbable run or something so impressive that Crean is a no-brainer choice.
The Case For Greg Gard
Taking over for an iconic figure midway through a season? Could you ask for anything tougher for an interim head coach with exactly zero head coaching experience at the collegiate level? In the case of Greg Gard you actually could, as the Badgers that he took over faced the very real possibility of being the first team coached by Bo Ryan to not make the NCAA tournament.
Instead of folding and keeping with the status quo, Gard took full control of this team and molded it in the image he believed would make them successful.
After taking over a team that was just 8-5 in non-conference play, Gard’s team went out to a 1-4 start to Big Ten play. That start featured losses to the likes of Purdue, Indiana and Maryland — hardly slouches in conference play.
Still, this team worked and figured out how to work the swing offense quickly. Once the lightbulb went on with their collective backs against the wall, Wisconsin has ripped off 11 wins in the last 12 games and own three wins over Top 10 teams.
Getting little-used point guard Jordan Hill to be a key contributor off the bench and Vitto Brown to become a three-point threat were things few saw coming — but they all happened.
No team in the Big Ten is as hot as the Badgers are, and no team is a bigger surprised based on early season results than UW. A lot of the credit for the turnaround has to go to Gard and his coaching.
The Case Against Greg Gard
While there is a happy feeling to what Gard has accomplished, there is a really bad loss on their record in Big Ten play — at Northwestern. It’s a blemish that Tom Crean and the Hoosiers simply don’t have on their record this season.
Additionally, Wisconsin’s 1-4 start in Big Ten play also coincided with the start of Gard’s tenure. Feel-good story aside, the totality of Gard’s Big Ten season is not nearly as impressive as the mark Crean’s Hoosiers have put up.
There’s also a consistently maddening feature to the 2015-16 Badgers…an ability to find an extended scoring drought in each half of just about every contest this season. Product of youth? Maybe. But also something that should’ve been figured out by now.
Wisconsin and Gard may be lucky it hasn’t suffered further losses given its inconsistency on the offensive end of the floor.
After all of that, voting for this award in this year is perhaps the most subjective in recent memory. Do you value a mild surprise and winning the conference title, or do you value doing what no one thought was possible?
If you love a feel-good story, you’d be totally justified in voting for Gard. If you value championships and quality play over the whole of the season, then Crean is your man.
Ultimately, this writer prefers to wait and see what happens on the final day of the regular season. Should the Badgers upend Purdue on the road to end the season, they will finish as the No. 2 seed and won 12 of their last 13 games to end regular season play. That’s consistency, and that would also mean four wins against Top 15 opposition in conference play.
How could you not vote for that kind of production from a team who was left for dead at 1-4 in B1G play early in January?
Should Wisconsin not win on Saturday at Purdue…well, the choice becomes much clearer and Tom Crean becomes the choice. This is a rare season in which the choice isn’t wrong no matter which way it goes.
Perhaps the bigger question is if we see a split vote like last season with Maryland’s Mark Turgeon winning the media vote and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan winning the coaches vote.
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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