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Badger basketball woes: Who’s to blame?

Just a year after earning a share of the Big Ten regular season title, the Badgers have been mired in mediocrity. Where does the program go from here?

Last year, Wisconsin men’s basketball had a phenomenal season — going 25-8, clinching a share of the regular season Big Ten title and finishing as No. 14 in the final AP Poll. Even though the Badgers bowed out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Iowa State, it did not take away from their rich accomplishments. 

However, almost a year later, the Badgers enter the middle of February with a meager 15-10 record and an even worse 7-8 record in the conference. With Wisconsin’s tournament hopes hanging in the balance, there’s enough reason to assess the state of Wisconsin basketball and speculate if changes are necessary. 

Since conference play fully began after the new year, Wisconsin is 5-8, with two losses to Northwestern to mark their first season sweep of the Badgers in 27 years and a poor loss to 12-14 Nebraska. Despite a big win over Michigan on Tuesday, it’s still fair to ask if this team is heading in the right direction. 

One of the team’s leading scorers, Tyler Wahl, did miss a chunk of those January games — the Badgers lost all three games he missed, which perhaps illustrates an alarming lack of depth. 

On the other hand, besides Wahl, no player earning significant minutes on this team has missed multiple games due to injury. Therefore, injuries are not entirely to blame for the team’s slide from first to tenth in the conference. Right now, the Badgers are meandering in the Big Ten cellar, just above football schools like Penn State and Nebraska, and Ohio State and Minnesota, who are having dreadful years. 

So, with Wisconsin in serious danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2018, what has gone wrong, and should a coaching change seriously be considered?

Talent woes 

The Badgers are sorely missing Johnny Davis, who was drafted 10th overall in the 2022 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards, and sixth-year senior Brad Davison, who left a major void at the point guard position. These two led Wisconsin in scoring last year, with Davis averaging nearly 20 points per game. 

Without these two, Wahl, sophomore guard Chucky Hepburn and junior center Steven Crowl have been forced to shoulder the load, and while they’ve improved individually, they have not quite been able to match the production of Davis and Davison. 

Hepburn is the Badgers’ leading scorer, averaging 13.7 points per game, with Crowl trailing behind at 11.8. Overall, Wisconsin’s offense was only 11th in the Big Ten last year, but they have slumped to 13th this year, ahead of only Minnesota, who have one conference win this year. 

The Badgers are averaging only 65 points per game, and although last year’s offense wasn’t much more prolific, they had the second best defense in the Big Ten. This year, Wisconsin has the fifth best defense in the conference this year, and it’s not enough to keep a floundering offense afloat. 

While Wisconsin’s slide only began recently, the source can perhaps be attributed to recruiting. The 2022 recruiting class, particularly since it came off a Big Ten title-winning season, was poor. 

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The Badgers only reeled in guard Connor Essegian, and even though he has been a key contributor this year, bringing in only one player is unacceptable. 

Wisconsin also acquired Max Klemsit from Wofford and Kamari McGee from Green Bay through the transfer portal. Klesmit has been a consistent starter, so he can be considered a solid pickup. However, the program should’ve been even more aggressive in the transfer portal given the weak recruiting class. 

Last year, 247Sports ranked Wisconsin’s recruiting class as the worst in the Big Ten. While this year’s class appears to be much better, as it slots in at #39 overall, it does not absolve coach Greg Gard of blame for last year’s pitiful recruiting showing. 

Time for a change?

Ultimately, it must be asked whether the Badgers are being led by the right coach. 

Gard has had successful moments — winning a share of two of the last three Big Ten regular season titles along with six NCAA tournament appearances in his eight year tenure (the 2020 tournament was canceled). 

However, Gard has also never won a Big Ten tournament title, and they last made it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in 2017. Considering legendary coach Bo Ryan finished his tenure with back-to-back Final Fours, it’s up to Wisconsin fans, and most of all Athletic Director Chris McIntosh, to define what success means for the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball program. 

Gard has generally failed to keep the best basketball players in-state. Outside of Johnny Davis, Jordan Davis and 2017 recruit Kobe King, Gard has not signed a top-seven recruit from Wisconsin. Considering the Badgers are arguably the most prolific program in the state, that is another concern to keep tabs on. 

Overall, if the standard is simply making the tournament and winning Big Ten regular season titles, then Gard has succeeded. It’s fair to ask if Gard will face the same fate as former football coach Paul Chryst, who had a 67-26 record before being fired in October

However, Chryst also began to flounder prior to his firing, as the football team was 2-3 at the time. 

New head coach Luke Fickell has lit a fire under the program with high-profile coaching hires and explosive additions from the transfer portal. Even though Gard won more Big Ten titles than Chryst, it’s fair to wonder if McIntosh will look to invigorate the basketball program as he did football. 

Gard is a good coach who has won many games at Wisconsin, but things have only gotten worse since the brutal loss to Iowa State. Is this a blip on the radar or a sign of a further downslide? 

The answer could lean either way, and while Gard has likely done enough to keep his job past this year, it’s fair to wonder if McIntosh repeats what he did in October and makes a bold decision for one of his flagship programs.

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