BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA – FEBRUARY 15: Greg Gard the head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers against the Indiana Hoosiers at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on February 15, 2022 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Wisconsin Basketball: State of the Union Address

My colleague Ryan Harings of Locked on Badgers asked BadgerNotes a series of questions regarding the current state of the Wisconsin men’s basketball program and where things stand under head coach Greg Gard.

Program trend, has it gone up, down, or stayed the same under Coach Gard?

There was a ton of animosity surrounding how Greg Gard became the head coach at the University of Wisconsin. Like it or not, Bo Ryan set things up so that his right-hand man would get a crack at landing the full-time gig – which he did. However, coach Gard has received far more criticism from the fan base than I feel is justified.

Coach Gard’s resume through seven seasons as head coach:

  • Winning percentage of (.649%).
  • Won two Big Ten regular-season titles.
  • Has two Big Ten Coach of the Year awards (2020, 2022).
  • Won the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year award (2016).
  • Coached two All-Americans (Happ, Davis).
  • Made the NCAA Tournament in all but one season.

Coach Ryan’s resume through his first seven seasons as head coach:

  • Winning percentage of (.742%).
  • Won three Big Ten regular-season titles.
  • Had two Big Ten Coach of the Year awards (2002, 2003)
  • Won the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year award (2008).
  • Coached two All-Americans (Harris, Tucker).
  • Made the NCAA Tournament every season while at UW.

Both coaches have enjoyed comparable on-court success throughout their first seven years. Coach Ryan is obviously in a league of his own, but I’m using his resume as a frame of reference for Gards’ on-court success.

Appreciating coach Gard

Had these results come from an outside hire, I feel confident saying the Badgers fan base would feel optimistic about the state of the program and the man leading it.

When replacing a Hall of Fame coach like Bo Ryan, it’s only fair to expect a drop-off, at least in some capacity. Coach Ryan owns the best winning percentage in the history of the Big Ten conference, so setting the bar that high in his absence would be downright ludicrous.

Everyone wants to hire a young, up-and-coming coach who can sell ice to an Eskimo, preferably with NBA pedigree or strong ties to the program. Those types of coaches don’t exactly grow on trees.

In reality, Wisconsin is unlikely to attract that kind of candidate. Even if they could, would you want to risk being repeatedly used as a stepping stone and hitting reset every couple of seasons?

While that certainly has its advantages, I ask that Wisconsin fans appreciate having someone like Gard, who can coach the game, is in his dream position, and is a wealth of knowledge for his players to lean on.

That said, coach Gard has done a terrific job keeping the train on the proverbial tracks. So, to answer your question, I’d say it’s gone down some, which I expected, but not nearly as much as people will lead you to believe. The Wisconsin men’s basketball program is in capable hands.

Can coach Gard elevate the program from its current state?

As for the question of whether or not Gard can elevate the program, I’d say I have serious doubts. I’m a realist regarding the men’s basketball program and understand UW’s obstacles on the recruiting trail.

Wisconsin simply isn’t going to land four and five-star recruits annually. There will always be outliers in recruiting, but overall, it’s an unrealistic expectation.

UW has a well-established identity, and they’ve consistently identified and developed players that systematically fit what they want to do – why fix something that’s not broken?

For a program focused on recruiting and developing its players, the transfer portal could also pose an interesting problem for UW as it relates to roster building.

Internal growth and cohesion have always kept Wisconsin competitive on the court. With the transfer portals usage becoming so prevalent, players are less likely to sit and wait their turn if they see a better opportunity to play elsewhere.

To combat this, Wisconsin will need to alter how they do business to keep pace with other top-flight programs in the Big Ten.

That said, I believe Wisconsin basketball Is unlikely to take the next step and become an upper-echelon program, at least in the eyes of the national media.

UW will remain one of the most consistent teams in the Big Ten, make the NCAA Tournament, and have themselves in a position to compete for league titles more often than not – with the occasional season where everything clicks and they accomplish something extraordinary.

That’s an excellent place to be if you’re a Wisconsin basketball fan, and while it’s reasonable to want more from the program, it’s just not likely to come to fruition.

Grading the strength of the roster now, with a look at the future:

Basketball has changed considerably in recent years, forcing a notable shift in UW’s playing and recruiting philosophy. Because of this, it took some time for Gardo to adapt his coaching style and revisit how he wants to construct his roster moving forward.

UW has shifted towards smaller lineups that put a premium on defensive versatility and the ability to be multiple – a vastly different strategy than some of the more pigeon-holed roles asked of players in the past.

However, in doing this, Coach Gard still looks for players possessing the same characteristics that align with the program’s core philosophy – just a different athletic makeup in some cases.

If I had to grade the overall state of the roster right now, I would give it a due to the lack of high-end talent. There are far more high-floor prospects on the roster than high-upside, but overall, solid talent across the board.

As this relates to the future, I expect the talent level to stay roughly the same, perhaps improving a modest amount. It may not be what people want to hear, but Wisconsin will continue to recruit quality culture fits that play their brand of basketball and win games doing so.

What should the expectations be for Wisconsin Basketball?

I’ll do my best to keep this short and sweet. Realistically, I feel that expectations should be that Wisconsin consistently finishes in the upper third of the Big Ten, be in the mix to compete for regular-season conference titles and make the NCAA Tournament every season.

I also believe that the fan base can rationally expect UW to produce a top-10-ranked team with a chance to make a deep run every three or four years. When Wisconsin has the time to develop its players and grow together, anything’s possible.

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