After a 23–11 season and a No. 21 finish in the Associated Press Poll, Head Coach Greg Gard and the Wisconsin men’s basketball team move forward to the 2019-20 season missing their star, All-American Ethan Happ.
Happ represented the last of legendary former head coach Bo Ryan’s recruits, and his departure marks the official beginning of a new era in Wisconsin men’s basketball.
This new era is perceived by many to have started in 2015 after Ryan retired, but I’m here to tell you why the jury should still be out on Gard, and that the start to his coaching career hasn’t been as impressive as many believe.
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Badger fans know that Gard took over following consecutive Final Four runs in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Aside from stars Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and a few other players, many pieces of those teams stayed around after Ryan retired.
Gard then led both the 2015-16 team and the 2016-17 team to the Sweet 16, and was a miracle shot from a Florida player away from the Elite Eight in 2016-17.
The success in both of those years was due in large part to the former Ryan recruits.
Here are the key pieces of his 2015-16 Sweet 16 team: Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Happ, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter.
Here are the key pieces of his 2016-17 Sweet 16 team: Hayes, Koenig, Happ, Brown and Showalter.
After the 2016-17 season, Hayes, Koenig, Brown and Showalter graduated, leaving Ethan Happ as the only recruit from the Ryan era still around.
Since that point, Gard’s teams are a combined 38-29 with one NCAA Tournament appearance and zero NCAA Tournament wins.
Even last year, when the team was ranked as high as No. 12 in the AP Poll and finished No. 21, much if not all of their success can be attributed to a historic season from Happ, Ryan’s recruit.
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There’s a saying that competent people can take over successful businesses, or sports teams, and carry that successful momentum for a short period of time … until their mark is left on the corporation or team and their flaws become apparent.
A prime example of this was seen with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s when Barry Switzer took over for Jimmy Johnson after Johnson retired following two consecutive Super Bowls. Switzer went on, with Johnson’s players, to lose in the conference championship the year after Johnson retired. He then won the Super Bowl two years after, lost in the divisional round three years after and was fired four years in following a losing season.
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This, on a smaller scale, is what is happening in the transition from Ryan to Gard.
This is not to say that Gard is a bad coach or shouldn’t have the job, it is just to point out something that isn’t the common narrative surrounding the beginning to Gard’s career — his success has largely been a continuation of Ryan’s regime, and hasn’t come with any of Gard’s recruits leading the way.
Gard’s recruits will be juniors for the 2019-20 season and seniors next season. These two years, and whether core pieces Brad Davison, Nate Reuvers and others can lead the Badgers to a deep tournament run, should be the years that write the narrative on the beginning of Gard’s coaching career.
Recent news has things trending in the right direction for Gard, however, as his 2020 class has four-star recruit Ben Carlson, three-star recruit Steven Crowl and two additional three-star recruits set to join him next season.