It’s been seven games since Greg Gard coached a fully healthy Badger basketball team. In that span, Wisconsin won just twice, both three point wins over Minnesota and Penn State.
But, he had his full arsenal to utilize against Illinois (15-6, 6-4 Big Ten) in the first game at the Kohl Center since students returned from winter break. Despite the boost, Wisconsin (12-8, 4-6 Big Ten) struggled once again to compete, eventually falling 61-51.
The key return that put the Badgers at full strength was guard Max Klesmit, who returned after missing two games with an upper body injury suffered against Penn State. He returned on Saturday afternoon, starting alongside Chucky Hepburn, Connor Essegian, Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl.
After watching his team lose two straight, Klesmit started the game in an inspiring manner. He put the first points on the board for the Badgers in the form of a 3-pointer, the beginning of a 12 point night. He followed it with his signature intense defense which kept the Badgers in the game early.
In classic Big Ten — especially Wisconsin — basketball fashion, it took over eight minutes of play for either team to score 10 points. Carter Gilmore finally broke the drought with a layup followed by a 3-pointer. The Badgers’ best bench player — since Essegian earned his starting role — finished with only those five points, but provided a valuable spark in the first half.
A heat check 3-pointer from Klesmit put the Badgers up by four points with under five minutes to play in the first half, but back-to-back inefficient Wisconsin possessions allowed the Fighting Illini to force their way back into the lead. Illinois took their own four point lead, led by Baylor transfer forward Matthew Mayer. The Badgers, even with the return of Klesmit’s admirable defense, had no answer for Mayer, who torched Wisconsin with 26 points.
Gilmore found himself open for a 3-pointer in the dying seconds of the first half but was unable to convert, and Wisconsin went into halftime with under 20 points for the first time all season. Illinois maintained their four point lead at the half, 20-16.
After sitting for over 10 minutes in the first half, Wahl finally came alive in the opening minutes of the second half. He scored the first of his nine points with a drive down the lane on back-to-back possessions, but the constant barrage of 3-pointers from Illinois’ Mayer held the Badgers at arm’s length.
The slight deficit turned into a much larger disparity, as the Fighting Illini ballooned their lead to 12 until Wahl hit a 3-pointer to stop the slide. Unfortunately, just after, Wahl picked up two fouls — his third and fourth — in less than a minute and went to the bench with four of them. After sitting 15 minutes in the first half, Wahl had to sit again in the second half, as he picked up those fouls with over 10 minutes to play.
When Wahl sat, Hepburn took over. His two 3-pointers and a crafty layup brought Wisconsin within two points of Illinois, and Crowl drilled one of his own 3-pointers to ignite the Kohl Center crowd and put Wisconsin up by one.
The unfortunate length of media timeouts drained the energy out of the crowd just as quickly as it appeared. After almost five straight minutes of timeouts, the Fighting Illini took advantage of the reset and restored their double digit lead with under six minutes to play. Missed free throws from Wisconsin — a meager 57% from the line — allowed Illinois to add onto their lead, awfully similar to the Northwestern loss at the beginning of the week.
With under five minutes left to play, the once-electric Kohl Center crowd cleared out as Wisconsin trailed 56-39. While the Badgers were able to score some late points, the idea of a comeback was fruitless, only serving to soften the impending blowout score. Wisconsin eventually ran out of time as they fell to Illinois, 61-51.
The future is… Well, concerning
After starting the season out hot with impressive wins over the likes of USC and Dayton – not to mention a 3-0 Big Ten start — the Badgers now sit at 11th place in the Big Ten and just four games over .500. Of course, as this particularly brutal disintegration of the 2022-23 season continues to fold out, questions about the near and far future of the program are undoubtedly swirling.
To some, the main question surrounds head coach Greg Gard. After leading the Badgers to a share of last year’s Big Ten regular season title, the coach is under heavy pressure to turn this season around, or he may be the second mid-season firing in Wisconsin Athletics this calendar year.
Missing entirely from the conversation as of late is Crowl, who, after averaging close to 20 points in the early stretch of Big Ten play, has essentially disappeared from the scoring category. Whether it be that teams have figured out how to guard him or the offensive struggles of Wisconsin, Crowl’s abrupt decline has severely damaged the season’s trajectory.
Even with the return of Klesmit, the lack of defensive rebounding remains a massive issue. Second-chance points have come far too easily for opponents as of late, and, combined with missed Wisconsin free throws, allow any opponent to swing the momentum of a game within minutes.
Also up in the air is the security of a March Madness bid. The possibility of missing the tournament completely — for just the second time since 1998 — is beginning to become more than just a possibility. Barring a miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament, the Badgers may sign away their tournament hopes if they lose their next few matchups.
Wisconsin will look to get back on track in Columbus, as they will take on Ohio State on Thursday, Feb. 2 at 6 p.m. The Buckeyes currently sit at 12th in the Big Ten, just one spot below the Badgers. This matchup could prove vital for a higher seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Tip off can be found live on FS1 and the Badger Sports Network.