INDIANAPOLIS — After Bo Ryan retired Dec. 15, Wisconsin won its first game with Greg Gard as interim head coach eight days later. Three days after Gard was named its head coach, and two days after he was formally introduced in front of family, friends and his team at a lively Nicholas-Johnson Pavilion, the Badgers fell to Nebraska in their first game in the Big Ten Tournament.
The bookends of Gard’s time at the helm aren’t pretty. After jumping out to a 48-27 lead against UW-Green Bay Dec. 23, UW ceded 52 points to the Phoenix in the second half and walked off the Kohl Center floor with a five-point victory against the Horizon League champions.
Thursday’s stunning loss to the Cornhuskers wasn’t particularly rosy either. Wisconsin shot 30.2 percent from the field, had 12 turnovers and was out-rebounded in the second half 21-15. The Badgers were outplayed from start to finish, with the exception of the first three minutes and 23 seconds of the second half.
It’s important to recognize Gard’s overall performance, sandwiched between two uneven performances, has been extraordinary. While it didn’t get off to the best start, and its most recent display wasn’t all that pretty either, there’s still a sweet center that affords an incredible amount of optimism, and that should be the outlook heading into the NCAA Tournament regardless of where the Badgers’ seeding now falls. For the next few days, though, that will be difficult for UW to realize.
“No it does not, sir,” was the entirety of redshirt freshman forward Ethan Happ’s response to a question inquiring whether knowing UW still had the NCAA Tournament to look forward to alleviated the bite of Thursday’s loss.
Junior forward Vitto Brown was slightly more hopeful.
“I mean, it doesn’t take the sting out, but it’s something to look forward to and know that we’re able to kind of correct these mistakes and have another crack at it,” Brown said.
Junior forward Nigel Hayes struck the same vibe as Brown, but he also offered a cautionary stipulation.
“Fortunately, we’re lucky enough that we turned that around and we can play in the NCAA Tournament,” Hayes said. “We’ll just have to make sure that we take every game like this [as] our last, because it definitely will be if we come out and play like we did today.”
Wherever Wisconsin ends up in the NCAA Tournament, which, with conference tournaments being played across the country this week, could be just about anywhere, it does have a formula to fall back on. Nebraska was able to break that code by viciously double-teaming in the paint and forcing Wisconsin to score from the perimeter, something the Badgers were unable to do. But, UW feels it can still regain the swagger it had during its seven-game winning streak in January and February.
“So it was just simple things like that that are very—saw a lot of uncharacteristic things out there tonight that haven’t been present when we have been playing really well,” Gard said. “And so we’re not in this position of finishing tied for third [in the Big Ten] with having those things be obvious or present. So I thought that we deviated from what has made us good in terms of through the course of the year [that] made us consistent.”
Brown feels Wisconsin will enact a proactive approach that will help it get over its recent skid.
“I think the main thing is going back and reevaluating and looking at the film, really analyzing what we didn’t do right in both of these games,” Brown said in reference to Thursday’s mishap and its regular-season ending loss to Purdue. “And I didn’t think they both really came down to the fact that we allowed them to attack us and we didn’t reciprocate that on the other end.”
Certainly the Badgers’ trajectory heading in to March Madness is not what it could have hoped for, especially given how well they had been playing for such a long stretch of the season. There are definitely changes that need to be made, beginning with working Brown, who had 13 of his 16 points in the first half and managed just two shot attempts in the final 20 minutes, into the offense in a more pronounced role. Additionally, Happ, who had handled double-teams decently well throughout the season, was completely flustered by the Huskers’ pressure and will have to work to maintain his composure when the paint gets extremely cluttered around him.
However, the Badgers can’t change too much in the limited time they have and, according to Hayes, they really shouldn’t heading into the tournament.
“This is a a balance you’ve got to have,” Hayes said. “A lot of teams are going to come in the first round of the tournament and they’re going to have too much energy, too much excitement, and that’s something that we can’t fall victim to. We just know we’ve got to play harder, play better. It’s not a miracle thing we need to do in order to beat a team like Nebraska or even a higher-seeded team. The little things that we needed to do, we didn’t do them today.”
Just over two months ago, it would have been impossible to postulate Wisconsin had even a sliver of hope to make the NCAA Tournament. UW quickly turned around those doubts and, heading into the opportunity it created for itself, it should feel confident knowing it still belongs there.