Wisconsin collectively had its bags packed, but as the “All aboard” signal came, Bucky Badger got left at the station. Their ticket to the Elite Eight was all but punched … at least they thought it was … until it wasn’t. As contradictory as it sounds, now that the Wisconsin Badgers’ season is over, things are about to get really interesting.
The season in Madison started with Bo Ryan’s semi-shocking exit (which seems a lot less surprising with the benefit of hindsight), but now that Greg Gard has proved himself – to the point that the Wisconsin coaching search ended before it started by inking Gard to a five-year contract earlier this month – one would expect the future of Wisconsin to look a lot like its past. However, as Wisconsin Badgers basketball goes forward under Gard, living up to the past offers some obstacles.
Greg Gard has been with Bo Ryan virtually his entire coaching career, minus a couple stops at the high school level to get his coaching feet wet. That loyalty has undoubtedly paid off, but success won’t be handed to Greg Gard (obviously). Now more than ever, there’s a link between the familiar Badgers’ “On Wisconsin!” battle cry and the simple, no-nonsense motto of the state itself: “Forward.”
From here on out, Gard is coaching (for all intents and purposes) with the Bo Ryan blueprint at stake. If college basketball games were played in blank uniforms, the only school whose style could be mistaken for Wisconsin’s is that of Virginia, coached not-so-coincidentally by Tony Bennett, son of Dick Bennett, former Wisconsin head coach. Which is to say: The slowed down, methodical manner of play is dying in college basketball, but could be resuscitated if Gard and Bennett each succeed, respectively. For as much of a stigma as there is surrounding this style of play (i.e. coaching), there’s no arguing with winning, and winning it has done.
Even after a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Notre Dame, Wisconsin fans have to be encouraged. Back when the team was 9-9, everyone in Madison would have viewed a trip to the Sweet Sixteen as an unmitigated success. If the late-season surge was a sign of things to come, Gard will assume a rightfully-deserved place among the upper-tier in the hierarchy of college coaches. If not, things will get really awkward, because Gard is Wisconsin’s own, and those sorts of break-ups never end well.
When Bo Ryan took over, Wisconsin basketball was molded in his image. While Ryan spent his entire coaching career in the 608 and 414 area codes, Gard has spent his entire life there, which makes his rise in the coaching ranks even more unprecedented. (Interestingly, Wisconsin has also put in place a football coach in Paul Chryst who likewise grew up in “America’s Dairyland,” although Chryst took a head coaching gig at Pitt. before returning as the prodigal son, a path many wrongfully predicted the new basketball coach would have to take to get where he is.) However, if Gard continues winning, it’ll be an amazing, rise-from-within story; a journey that would make Hollywood screenwriters salivate, even in fiction.
It could get a little tricky for Gard, though. Now that he’s got the controls, not only does he have very high expectations put on him immediately, he must juggle keeping the Bo Ryan foundation in tact, but simultaneously find a way to put his own stamp on the program. All those warnings out there about not wanting to be “the guy after the guy” because of unfair expectations are now Greg Gard’s reality. Somewhere, there must be a line drawn delineating where the Bo Ryan legacy ends, and where Greg Gard intends on seeing his own start; he is the guy-after-the-guy, and the guy before him changed everything and took Wisconsin basketball to heights previously unknown. If the program suffers and Gard doesn’t pace the sidelines long enough to see the end of his shiny new contract, the Badgers will be stuck at a basketball crossroads, which could dramatically shift the model they put in place.
This is not a doomsday outlook, however, just a reminder that, in the words of the hip-hop group De La Soul “The stakes is high,” for all the reasons previously mentioned.
During his tenure, Bo Ryan always gushed about Gard’s role in putting together scouting reports and game plans, so from a preparation standpoint, even with limited head coaching experience, Gard’s ability in this regard should be beyond question.
Further, for as much slack as Ryan got for playing slow, he had an uncanny ability to subtly match – and change – the team’s style with its personnel, all the while staying true to his philosophy. There were years the Badgers finished atop the Big Ten standings when they had no business being there talent-wise. They did it by mucking up games, playing strong defense, and making plays when it mattered. When Wisconsin assembled its more talented teams, the reins were taken off a bit, the pace picked up, and the Badgers would out-talent teams on their way to victories. By the time Ryan left, Gard had learned everything there was for him to learn from his predecessor, but that makes it no less imperative for him to display that same quality of matching style with players.
As successful as Wisconsin has been, the area of least pressure on Gard is in recruiting, however counterintuitive that may seem. The Wisconsin blueprint has been built on seeking out underappreciated recruits and developing them. While most of the nation’s programs view team-building as a year-to-year proposition, Wisconsin looks at recruits from a standpoint of what those players can turn into during their junior and senior seasons. This makes it relatively easier on a coach for a couple of (intertwined) reasons: 1) Having that type of infrastructure in place creates an environment where the star players of today assume responsibility for the success of the stars of tomorrow – the same guys who are today’s role players (anyone who watched Ethan Happ grow this season can thank Frank Kaminsky, for example), and; 2) Running a system unlike (virtually) 99% of the country presents an inherent value in itself, in that Wisconsin finds value in high school players where few other schools look, which amounts to a “Moneyball”-esque type scheme. In sports, there is always value in zigging while everyone else is zagging.
In the coming days and weeks, while the sting from the (Bitter)Sweet Sixteen begins to wear off, it will become clearer that the future of Wisconsin Badgers basketball is in very capable hands. Even though the madness marches on without Bucky Badger this season, “Forward” now assumes a secondary role as the unofficial slogan of Wisconsin basketball. At the beginning of the season, “Forward” would have been synonymous with an unknown, post-Bo Ryan future, one that would have carried a heavy uncertainty in one’s gut. But going forward is now accompanied with a glimmer in the eyes of fans, even in the face of that same uncertainty. The Badger faithful have every reason to envision cheering on Wisconsin deep into tournaments to come. There’s no reason to curb the expectations now: Wisconsin has a coach who is not only proving himself on the fly, but yet another coach building a premier program who is one of their own, one who has found a home without ever having to leave it.