Times are tough for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, but as head coach Greg Gard said Tuesday, it is nothing the program has not seen before.
Gard was quick to point to the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. Both of those seasons featured tough stretches during Big Ten play, but both teams managed to rebound (a conference tournament appearance in ’13, a Final Four in ’14).
The confidence required to finish the season strong and make deep tournament runs is still there for No. 22 Wisconsin (22-7, 11-5 Big Ten), Gard said.
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“I think they’re fine,” Gard said. “They understand. Some of them have been through it before when they were younger and understand that it’s part of it. You don’t like to go through it. It’s not fun to go through. It’s painful at times.”
In 2013-14, the freshman season for Vitto Brown, Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes (and the redshirt freshman season for Zak Showalter), the Badgers lost five of six at one point, going from the third-ranked team in the country to unranked.
That, along with sticking to the gameplan, should get UW through this rough patch, Gard said.
“You can’t deviate too far from your plan,” Gard said. “You adjust and try to get better and fix things that need to be fixed, but also understand and not flinch, I guess, in the moment.”
UW assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft is no stranger to dealing with low stretches as a player. Krabbenhoft has delivered a positive message to players during recent weeks, Gard said.
“Joe’s talked about that before this, just all the different roller coaster rides he went on as a player and how guys fought through it, what was talked about in the locker room and how guys responded,” Gard said. “It’s part of it. He mentioned to me the other day it’s how you come out of those type of things that you remember.”
Showalter, who has seen his share of losing streaks during his five seasons on campus, can speak to that.
“Honestly, just knowing that this is the Big Ten, this happens to teams, don’t panic, don’t lose our togetherness,” Showalter said, “I think that’s the main thing.”
Next up for the Badgers is Iowa (16-13, 8-8), who will visit the Kohl Center Thursday night. After losing three straight, the Hawkeyes have rebounded with two wins over Indiana and Maryland.
Iowa sports the second-best scoring offense in the Big Ten (80.6 ppg) and the worst scoring defense in the conference (77.7 ppg). Despite allowing a season-worst 84 points on Sunday at Michigan State, the Badgers still lead the league in scoring defense (62.1 ppg).
Peter Jok, a senior guard-forward combo, leads the Big Ten in scoring at 20.6 points per game, nearly two full points ahead of Caleb Swanigan, the Purdue big man considered the front-runner for Big Ten Player of the Year. Jok converts free throws at a 92.2 percent rate. He has made the third-most 3-pointers in the Big Ten. Jok’s 70 threes is just behind Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig’s mark of 71.
Gard said UW has done a better job of taking care of the ball. That will be key against Iowa, a team that likes to play fast in transition. The Hawkeyes also tend to change defenses and pressure offenses in the backcourt, providing other challenges. Gard sees the Hawkeyes as a more mature team than when he watched them get blown out by Virginia early in the season.
“It’s a good team that’s really improved and can put a lot of points on the board,” he said. “They can score in a hurry from a lot of different places.”
Jordan Bohannon, the brother of former UW players Jason and Zach Bohannon, plays for Iowa and is off to a nice freshman season, chipping in 9.2 ppg. Gard remembers the younger Bohannon running around the family home in third or fourth grade when he was an assistant recruiting Jason more than a decade ago.
“He’s obviously had great tutelage,” Gard said. “He’s worked hard.”
Gard said Bohannon was on UW’s radar during the recruiting process, but UW’s uncertain scholarship situation inhibited it from offering and Bohannon committed to Iowa in the beginning of his senior year of high school.
Redshirt freshman guard Tyler Cook averages 11.8 ppg and is shooting 51 percent from the field to complement Jok and Bohannon.
It was a tough road trip defensively for the Badgers, who saw Ohio State shoot 62.5 percent from three and score 83 points, only to allow 84 points at Michigan State on Sunday. Gard said he thought the team’s defense was better in terms of aggression and physicality against the Spartans, and the majority of what he has seen on film is correctable.
“That’s the one thing that allows me to sleep a little bit better at night,” he said.
Another recent problem for UW is its trouble scoring inside. Unofficially, Gard tallied Wisconsin at 17-for-36 from inside the paint against Michigan State. That, coupled with poor free throw shooting, doomed Wisconsin. Gard said he’d like the Badgers to be in the 70 percent success rate from down low.
“Finishing inside,” Happ said, when asked where the team needs to improve right now. “And defensively.”