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Saturday, May 18, 2024
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Greg Gard was not happy with his teams defensive energy against Ohio State, who gave up a season high 42 points to the Buckeyes in the second half.

Column: The Badgers kept Greg Gard. What were they thinking?

Wisconsin’s athletic director announced the men’s basketball head coach would return for another season. Was it the right choice?

And with that, the 2023-24 Wisconsin men’s basketball season comes to an end. The final score from Brooklyn: James Madison Dukes 72, Wisconsin Badgers 61.

Just weeks after being in contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, a seventh-straight season without a Sweet Sixteen berth is a massive disappointment. It’s also Wisconsin’s longest drought since 2003. By half a decade.

And yet, nothing changes.

Wisconsin Athletic Director Chris McIntosh told BadgerExtra that head coach Greg Gard will remain at the head of the table come the opening tip of 2024.

“I think Greg puts us in the best position to be successful in the future,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh extended Gard’s contract in June 2022. The contract makes Gard the fifth highest-paid coach in the Big Ten and the 22nd highest-paid coach in the country. Gard would be owed a cool $12 million in “liquidated damages” if fired without cause.

So, Gard will stay. Here’s why McIntosh made a mistake.

Tournament failures

2014 was a glorious year to be a Badgers fan.

Frank Kaminsky put up a player of the year performance, Sam Dekker dropped daggers, and the team made the national championship game.

The 2015 season saw Bo Ryan retire 12 games in and hand the reins to Gard, who guided the team to a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Aided by a roster mostly put together by Ryan, Gard made the second weekend of the tournament again in 2016.

But following the graduation of four key Ryan recruits — including Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes — the team missed the tournament completely.

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Since then, the team has made the tournament during four of the last five full seasons (the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic) under Gard. They have underperformed their seeding in three.

Late-season collapses

This year, the Badgers entered Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska ranked No. 6 in the country, riding high after an 8-1 start to the Big Ten schedule.

They lost.

Wisconsin proceeded to make it a four-game losing streak and dropped eight of their last 11 games to finish the Big Ten season 11-9. The Badgers completely fell out of the AP rankings and lost all hope for a tournament matchup close to home.

This is not a new trend. Last year, the Badgers opened the new year with a 3-0 Big Ten start and a No. 14 ranking. They finished the season 6-12 in the conference and missed the tournament entirely.

In 2021, Wisconsin was riding high on the back of Johnny Davis, who led the team to a Big Ten regular-season championship and a No. 10 ranking. By now, the sequence should be familiar. The team lost their final regular season against a bad Nebraska team, lost in their first Big Ten tournament game and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Iowa State.

This trend seems to follow Gard across his head coaching tenure. A 12-3 record and No. 10 ranking in 2020 turned into 18-13 and a second-round exit. A 21-3 record and No. 7 ranking turned into 22-8 and nearly out of the rankings in 2016.

Such is life under Gard.

Recruiting

If you want to be the best, you have to recruit the best. Gard has consistently struggled to do that.

Wisconsin is by no means the most talented state when it comes to homegrown basketball talent, and that means you can’t just stare at the stars through a telescope. You have to jump on a spaceship and go get them.

Gard even misses in-state talent when it’s available. Since 2018, Wisconsin has produced nine top-50 national recruits, according to 247sports. Gard secured commitments from none of them.

His top commit is arguably transfer AJ Storr, who was a four-star prospect upon entering the transfer portal in 2023. Daniel Freitag — who is expected to debut for the Badgers in 2024 — will be his highest-ranked recruit (104th nationally) since Nate Reuvers in 2017, according to 247sports.

Gone are the days of five-star recruits like Sam Dekker. The standard is now three.

Solid replacements

Fire Gard.

“But who will you replace him with?” you ask.

Not everyone has an elite coach sitting on the street waiting for them, but that doesn’t mean the Badgers wouldn’t have options.

Highly regarded former Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May signed on at Michigan for the same salary as Gard, just a year removed from leading his then-Conference USA Owls to a Final Four appearance as a No. 9 seed.

Fast-riser Danny Sprinkle led Utah State to an NCAA tournament victory in year one as head coach, immediately removed from back-to-back tournament appearances as the leader of Montana State. His new deal with Washington is slightly less lucrative than Gard’s.

Pat Kelsey was signed by Louisville for significantly less than Gard, as was new West Virginia coach Darian DeVries.

And wouldn’t it have been so fitting if the coach that knocked him out of the tournament this year — Mark Byington — was hired as a replacement before he shipped off to Vanderbilt? 

So many options. Maybe the Badgers are playing the waiting game with Kentucky and John Calipari.

Accepting reality

With all the money talk, it would be remiss to mention that Gard is the second highest-paid public employee in the state of Wisconsin — right behind Luke Fickell.

So yes, Gard will stay. But perhaps it is time to start assessing our sports coaches like politicians.

Gard will make almost 25 times the salary of Gov. Tony Evers in 2024. However, unlike Evers, his job security does not come down to a vote by Wisconsinites.

Instead, on we roll into a 2024-25 season with Greg Gard but without Storr and Tyler Wahl.

As Gard himself said about the team’s performance after the loss to JMU: “That’s pretty futile.”

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Tomer Ronen

Tomer Ronen is the Features Editor for the Daily Cardinal. Follow him on Twitter at @TRonen22.


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