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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Men’s Basketball: Question marks, staples surround UW program heading into offseason

Badgers lose contributors to transfer portal, retain Gard after NCAA Tournament loss
Jacob Duran
Five Badgers have entered the transfer portal, causing unknowns for the team as it heads into the offseason.

Before the NCAA introduced the transfer portal in 2018, there were clear boundaries set to define when the season ended and the offseason began. Fast forward to 2024 and on the night of the men’s NCAA National Championship game, there are over 1,100 players available in the portal and more than a hundred already committed to a new team. With the lines blurred, it’s impossible to recap a season without including some pieces of the traditional offseason.

Arguably the biggest question on the University of Wisconsin’s men’s basketball fans’ minds following the 2023-24 campaign was whether or not Head Coach Greg Gard would be retained. Athletic director Chris McIntosh wasted no time settling the debate — committing to Gard through the upcoming season in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal and Badger Extra.

With the Badgers returning a veteran core with a handful of exciting underclassmen, turning the program on its head with a coaching change seemed like a radical change. But, only a few expected McIntosh to cut ties with football coach Paul Chryst when he did back in 2022, giving some legitimate firepower to the ‘fire Gard’ audience.


Gard and the rest of the coaching staff will have their work cut out to replace five players who’ve gone into the portal.

Headlining the team’s exits is leading scorer AJ Storr, whose athleticism and three-level scoring helped the Badgers’ offense to its most points per game, 74.7, since 1993-94 and a 9.4-point improvement from 2022-23.

Storr declared for the NBA draft but retained his college eligibility March 26, before later putting his name in the transfer portal. The sophomore averaged 16.8 points per game and started in all 36 games for the team. He scored in double figures for 31 straight games to finish out the season — UW’s longest streak since Ethan Happ’s 42 straight spanning 2017-2019 — and played a key role in the Badgers’ run to the Big Ten Tournament Championship.

He earned All-Big Ten Tournament first-team honors after averaging 22.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals over four games — including his first career 30-point game.

While Storr is eligible to run it back with UW next season, the verbiage used in his NBA declaration and his entrance into the portal makes a return to Madison all the more unlikely.

In just one season, fans saw Storr grow right in front of their eyes — entering the program as a highly athletic wing who was utilized more as a spot-up shooter and threat in transition as a freshman at St. John’s and leaving as one of the top scorers in the Big Ten and a strong all-around player.

His defensive growth culminated in an exceptional March, where he racked up 12 steals in eight games — two more than his total leading up to that point — including several poke-aways in clutch moments.

Though it’s a tough goodbye, the high-flying wing will not soon be forgotten, with highlights like a poster dunk against the University of Maryland, a halfcourt lob over a Penn State University defender, a filthy crossover step-back 3-pointer in the Big Ten Tournament, a left-handed slam over Clifford Omoruyi and an off-the-backboard dunk against the University of Iowa, among the many jaw-dropping plays Storr provided.

Sophomore Connor Essegian also entered the transfer portal after seeing his role diminish drastically in his second season as a Badger. Essegian looked to be a core piece to UW’s future after averaging 11.7 points and making 19 starts as a true freshman. But, a mix of defensive struggles, inconsistent shooting and the emergence of John Blackwell pushed the Fort Wayne native to the back of Gard’s rotation, where he averaged 7.3 minutes per contest.

With four-star guard Daniel Freitag on campus next fall and none of the players ahead of Essegian departing, the talented sophomore was headed toward another limited year which was likely the reason for his transfer.

After creating plenty of buzz on campus for his arrival, freshman Gus Yalden will leave the program without having played a single minute for the Badgers. His Madison tenure was derailed early on by a handful of off-court issues and Yalden was never able to get back on track. He didn’t travel with the team for the Big Ten Tournament or NCAA Tournament. Listed at 6-foot-9, Yalden’s size and unique mix of shooting ability and passing prowess could have been useful in 2023 and beyond for a Badger team that has plenty of question marks in the front court.

Rounding out the five exits are former walk-on guards Luke Haertle and Ross Candelino. While both were reserve players, Haertle saw the most work of the two, appearing in 11 games for a total of 11 minutes. On the other hand, Candelino didn’t play in 2023-24 but logged five minutes as a freshman the year prior.

Both players probably weren’t going to factor into the Badgers’ long-term plans but could put more pressure on the coaching staff to fill out the roster via the transfer portal.

Though the season ended in an NCAA Tournament berth as a five seed — a drastic improvement from UW’s 2022-23 NIT campaign — calling the team’s performance inconsistent feels like an understatement.

While looking through the lens of UW’s preseason expectations, a 22-14 record with a Big Ten Tournament Championship appearance and a five seed in the Big Dance would be deemed a success by most, but it’s hard to blame fans asking for more.

UW ran through the Fort Myers Tip-Off to earn the tournament title and leaped out to a 16-4 record (8-1 Big Ten) with wins over Marquette University, the University of Virginia and Michigan State University, twice, by Jan. 26. At that moment, the Badgers had a multi-game lead in the Big Ten and climbed to No. 6 in the AP Top 25.

During that stretch, Max Klesmit caught fire. From Jan. 10 to Jan. 23 over the stretch of five games, Klesmit went 17-for-25 or 68% from beyond the arc and put together individual halves of 18 and 23 points.

The 23-point half came against Indiana University when Klesmit single-handedly scored 20 straight points for the Badgers on three 3-pointers, a four-point play, a layup and two free throws.

Past Jan. 26, the regular season was a nightmare. UW went 3-8 to finish in fifth place in the conference, with ugly losses to Rutgers University — by 22 points — and the University of Michigan. Though the team showed signs of life in the three games leading up to the Big Ten Tournament with close losses to Purdue and Illinois and a double-digit win over Rutgers, very few expected the Badgers to make as much noise in Minneapolis as they did.

UW opened up the weekend with an utterly dominant win over Maryland — drilling 10 3-pointers in the first half en-route to a 31-point victory. Next, the Badgers took down Northwestern University in a thriller behind 30 points from Storr to overcome the absence of Chucky Hepburn due to injury.

Hepburn returned for a semifinal matchup with the Boilermakers and delivered one of his best performances as a Badger. He logged 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting with four assists and three steals. The contest was an instant classic, with Hepburn sending the game to OT with a last-second layup then drawing a charge on Purdue’s Braden Smith to set up the game-winning jumper by Klesmit. Their Big Ten Tournament championship appearance was UW’s first since 2017.

While they came up short of the title, dropping by six to the Fighting Illini, UW came into the NCAA Tournament playing some of their best basketball. But their recent performance didn’t carry over, turning the ball over 19 times and shooting 37.3% from the field in the opening-round loss to James Madison University.

Riding through the highs and lows of a roller coaster season, the bitter end will likely put a damper on the lasting memory of what was a very eventful Badgers’ 2023-24 campaign.

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