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.