Last season didn’t go as planned for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, and that’s almost certainly an understatement. They missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 19 years, and their 15 wins, 18 losses season was their worst under head coach Greg Gard. You have to go back 20 years to see the last time the Badgers finished with a sub .500-win ratio, a 12 win 19 loss season in 1997-98.
With a large portion of the team returning — 94.9 percent of its scoring and all five starters back from a year ago — there could be worries that the struggles of last season might weigh heavily on the team. But as players periodically wander out onto the Kohl Center floor for their media day obligations there is no sense that this team is one that is dwelling in the past. They are a team that recognizes what they can learn from the tumultuous past season but one whose focus is well and truly looking toward the season ahead.
“There’s a reason why your rear view mirror is about four percent of what your windshield is, you look back, you glance, you don’t gaze, you have to focus on what’s in front of you,” Gard said. “You learn from the past, you grow from those experiences, you apply them as you take steps forward and then you’ve got to focus on moving forward.”
A big boost for the team is the return of preseason All American Ethan Happ, who after dipping his toes into the NBA waters decided to pass on the NBA draft for now and return to Wisconsin for his senior season.
After his foray into the NBA environment, Happ said he has returned with a greater appreciation for the Wisconsin basketball program.
“I worked out with a lot of different guys and some of the stories they told made me go huh, you guys don’t have that? Or you guys don’t hang out as a team?” Happ said. “I guess I really didn’t realize how thankful I was for the way we do things here versus being at another school.”
Along with his increased appreciation for his program, Happ also returned with a series of goals from his NBA workouts — shoot a higher free throw percentage and be able to space the floor by hitting mid-range jump shots. Two things that he said will be “mutually beneficial” for himself and the team.
When looking at the record book, Happ’s name is scrawled throughout. Coming into this season he currently ranks 8th in UW history in points (1,541), 2nd in rebounds (875), 17th in assists (270), 6th in blocks (110) and 3rd in steals (179). But as impressive as these personal achievements are they don’t mean much to Happ — not yet at least.
“20 years from now when I’m talking to my kids, you know I can say your dad was pretty good, but right now it has no bearing on my play at all,” Happ said.
Kicking the injury bug
Part of last seasons downfall was the number of injuries that the team had to overcome, with the backcourt being hit particularly hard. Freshman Kobe King and sophomore D’Mitrik Trice, both guards, each suffered season-ending injuries only ten games into the season. This along with fellow guard Brad Davison playing through a left shoulder injury that would require reconstructive surgery this past offseason left the Badgers backcourt terribly understaffed.
Coming into this season, all three have a clean bill of health and will be able to contribute handily to the team, restoring some much-needed depth. Davison, who last season in his freshman year, averaged 12.1 points and 2.5 assists said the added depth will not only have an impact on games but has already influenced the intensity at practices.
“Having a lot of bodies just raises the competition level in practice, we can do more, we can do more competitions, we can do more scrimmaging, and again just that competition level just raises everyone’s game, pushes us all to the next level,” Davison said.
After the injuries to King and Trice last season, Davison and fellow guard Brevin Pritzl had to shoulder much of the load in the backcourt.
Now with a fully healthy roster, there is going to be much greater competition for playing time, something Davison sees only as a positive.
“I think last year coach was trying to find guys for minutes and this year we’ve got to find minutes for guys,” Davison said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can play at a really high level, so that’s huge for us.”
The team welcomes four freshmen with guards Tai Strickland, Carter Higginbottom, forward Taylor Currie, and center Joe Hedstrom joining the program. Also arriving is sophomore center Owen Hamilton, who comes over from Northern Illinois and will redshirt the 2018-19 season.
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Sophomore guard Trevor Anderson will also get his first chance to see court time after redshirting last season following a transfer from Green Bay. Anderson averaged 9.8 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game during his time in Green Bay.
How much of a role any of the new arrivals will play this upcoming season is yet to be determined with Gard yet to settle on any lineups.
“I think it’s probably too early yet,” Gard said. “I haven’t even started thinking about, or put five guys who’ll be out there to start Nov. 6.”
Following Sundays red and white scrimmage the team now has an exhibition match against UW-Oshkosh Friday, Nov. 2 before the season gets underway proper when the Badgers take on Coppin State Nov. 6 at the Kohl Center.