This story starts with the legend of Bo Ryan. Bo Ryan ranks 17th on the all-time NCAA wins list (with less years coached than all but one coach ahead of him) with a record of 762-241 in 32 seasons. That’s a 76%-win percentage, something most universities will never find, much less have to replace. Bo Ryan led the Wisconsin Badgers to a top 4 finish in the Big Ten every year that he was at the helm, creating a new standard for success at the University of Wisconsin.
Under Coach Ryan, Wisconsin reached back to back final fours, including a national title appearance in 2015. Bo Ryan will always be one of the most beloved sports figures the University of Wisconsin has ever had. Bo helped the program reach unimaginable heights, and gave Wisconsin a winning culture. Coach Ryan’s contributions will never be forgotten.
Now what hat if I told you that after one of the best college coaches in NCAA history retired, your replacement would do the following:
- Make the NCAA tournament 4 of 5 years.
- Have 2 Sweet Sixteen appearances (tournament was cancelled in 2020)
- Lead the team to a Big Ten regular season championship in a year of considerable adversity, after losing one of the programs most decorated players to graduation.
- Have a top 10 Coach winning percentage in Big Ten history.
- Win a Big Ten Coach of the year award.
Would you have been satisfied with that? I would assume so, but for some reason Greg Gard has been a polarizing figure among the Wisconsin fan base.
Let’s take a deep dive into some of the narratives pushed by many in the fan base and see how they hold up:
The system doesn’t work
Just because the system isn’t what you want it to look like doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Wisconsin has finished in the top 4 of the Big Ten in 18 of the last 19 seasons, with far less talent than other top performers in many of those seasons. The continued success would suggest that the system just might have something to do with it. While it may not be for everyone, it’s a selfless system built for a very specific type of recruit. Wisconsin does an outstanding job of following their model and finding the right fits for the program, it’s how you build a culture/identity.
Wisconsin does a great job recruiting selfless players who fit their system/culture. Wisconsin isn’t always going to try and recruit the flashiest or most skilled players, instead they consistently find players with strengths that coincide with the programs core values. Wisconsin’s first priority is always going to be winning on the court over recruiting/developing next level talent. Wisconsin has an identity and that’s more than the vast majority of programs can say. Players know what they’re signing up for when the come to Wisconsin and that kind of continuity is rare now a days. The system isn’t the problem, its part of the reason for all of Wisconsin’s success, because when a player commits you know you’re getting someone who wants to play for something bigger than the name on the back.
I believe if there was a coaching change made, and Wisconsin brought in someone who wanted to change the identity of the Badgers (up-tempo offense), that Wisconsin would endure multiple losing seasons while attempting to attract the type of recruits required to run it. Part of the beauty of Wisconsin is how unique their style of play is, it allows us to dictate the pace of play in every game we partake in. Teams are more often forced to adjust to our style of play, rather than us to theirs. Maybe I’m in the minority but I’ll take a program like ours that embodies our identity through and through and consistently gives us a chance to win over the alternative.
Despite all of the adversity Wisconsin faced, Coach Gard made no excuses and instead used it to rally a team to buy in, and use it as fuel. The players currently in the program love the system and have clearly bought into what Greg Gard is selling. Don’t believe me? look no further than our 8-game winning streak to finish the season, resulting in a share of the Big Ten title (nobody had Wisconsin picked higher than 6th preseason). I don’t know what your definition of “working” is but a top 4 finish in 18 of the last 19 years running the same system would suggest that yes, it does in fact work. The system isn’t designed to appease the fan-base, its built to win.
Greg Gard can’t recruit.
While its understandable that fans expected the program to continue to reach new heights on the heels of back to back final fours, I think its also fair to point out the fact that not everyone is a finished product the minute they assume a position.
If Greg Gard was showing no signs of improvement on the court or on the recruiting trail I could at least understand the criticism, but that hasn’t been the case what so ever. I would venture to assume you didn’t know all of the in’s and outs of your job right from the get go, but like any job you can grow and improve by effort and by believing what you’re selling.
I would like to preface what I’m going to say by saying that I do understand the misconception, and where the criticism comes from. The current state of the roster doesn’t have great depth and isn’t littered with “stars” but it does have a plethora of good players. To make my point I’m going to have to go back to the beginning of Greg Gard’s tenure to explain how we got to where we are now.
- Coach Ryan’s final recruiting class (The Beginning of the Greg Gard ERA):
Brevin Pritzl, Khalil Iverson, Charlie Thomas, Alex Illikainen, and Andy Van Vliet.
That’s roughly 1/3 of your roster that provided moderate production at best over the course of their careers at Wisconsin. This roster was in a flux before Greg Gard even had the chance to put his own fingerprints on the program. Wisconsin’s model had been the same for nearly two decades, get old, stay old. A recruiting class this large, with these many misses threw a huge wrench into that plan and forced several players into playing time before they might have been ready. This class essentially produced two real contributors (Iverson/Pritzl). Simply put, that isn’t good enough and would prove to be detrimental in years to come.
- The “underwhelming” 2016 Class
Neither D’Mitrik Trice or Aleem Ford were very highly rated recruits when Wisconsin brought them in from IMG Academy. As a matter of fact, the 201i6 class was ranked 104th nationally by 247 sports. It was a difficult recruiting cycle for Wisconsin given the uncertainty behind the leadership of the program. This more or less forced Coach Gard to do a deeper dive than usual on the recruiting trail, and ended up landing two prospects late in the cycle. While this was a class that fans ragged on for some time, their development has been undeniable and its fair to say that Coach Gard did just fine. This is also a friendly reminder that it’s not fair to judge a class on national signing day.
- The 2017 Class
Once Greg Gard was officially named head coach at Wisconsin, he was able to lock down a really solid class in 2017. Ranked 35th nationally and 5th in the Big Ten, Greg Gard was able to secure commitments from Nate Reuvers, Brad Davison, and Kobe King. All of whom were ranked in the top 200 nationally and would prove to be contributors early in their careers.
- The Swing for the fences (2018)
What came next was something that nobody could have predicted. Greg Gard was coming off a strong recruiting class and was looking to elevate the program with some top end talent. Tyler Herro was a blue chip in state recruit that had been committed to Wisconsin for some time. This allowed Coach Gard to pursue another blue chip in state player named Joey Hauser, truly pushing his chips all in on what could have been a program changing class. What ended up happening was Tyler Herro de-committed in the eleventh hour and the Badgers missed out on Joey Hauser. This left the program scrambling to fill scholarships and ended up with a class of Taylor Currie (transferred), Tai Strickland (transferred), and Joe Hedstrom. This is the class that I’ll cede to the fanbase was definitely underwhelming (74th nationally/13th in the Big Ten), but given the circumstances, it was still notable to fill a class on such short notice. Greg Gard took a swing for the fences this cycle and struck out swinging. This left Coach Gard with two options. 1. Continue to push the envelope pursuing high end prospects, hoping to strike gold or 2. Get in early on the 2nd tier of prospects (3*/4* type of players) and try to focus more on prospect’s that fit the programs identity.
- The Tyler Wahl class (2019)
2019 was a one man class, but early returns show that Tyler Wahl is exactly the type of recruit Wisconsin loves to target and is a perfect system fit. Devoid of scholarships to give out in 2019, I think its fair to say Wisconsin is pretty happy with adding Tyler Wahl to the program. Let us not forget Greg Gard added Micah Potter as a transfer in 2019 (he’s pretty good at basketball).
- Future Outlook
Coach Gard learned from his mistake in the 2019 class and the proof as they say is in the pudding. The 6-man class of 2020 (Ben Carlson, Johnny Davis, Lorne Bowman, Steven Crowl, Jordan Davis, and Carter Gilmore) is ranked #20 in the nation, and among the best in program history. Trust me when I say this is a very talented class and is full of players that can and will make early impacts at Wisconsin. This could be a class that see’s all 6 players make some type of contribution during their respective careers, as well as possessing top end athletes that could change the arc of success at Wisconsin.
As for the 2021 class (Matthew Mors, Chucky Hepburn, and Chris Hodges), they’re currently the #1 ranked class in the country. Greg Gard created strong relationships early with all 3 of these players and his continued pursuit of them led to early commitments. All 3 recruits are currently rated 4* by 247 sports, and the Badgers are still looking to add 1 or 2 more to the 2021 class.
What this has showed me is not only has Greg Gard learned from past mistakes, but he’s begun to find his niche on the recruiting trail, recruits are taking notice, and has the future of this program looking very, very bright.
So, can we put this narrative to rest?
Greg Gard Can’t Coach
Greg Gard just won the Big Ten regular season championship with 7 healthy scholarship players, next.
Just appreciate the man for what he’s done for this program and enjoy the ride.
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