By any measure the year 1999 was a big year for the world. It marked the end of a century as well as a millennium and usher in many changes into the world. The Euro currency was introduced, President Bill Clinton was acquitted by the senate in his impeachment trial, Spongebob Squarepants debuted on Nickelodeon and the Earth’s population went over six million for the first time in history and perhaps most importantly I turned two years old. All that puts into perspective just how long the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball teams NCAA tournament streak was.
The Badgers had been in every single NCAA tournament from 1999 until that streak was broken this season when the Badgers had a mediocre season, that at times, the team was absolutely dreadful to watch. It was such a stark contrast from the quality that we as a fan base had grown to expect from this program over the last 4-5 years. The 15-18 overall record, 7-11 Big 10 record and losing 10 games during the months of January and February alone was a jarring change of pace from the deep tournament runs or recent years. This is the same team that advanced to at least the Sweet Sixteen each of the last four years, made back-to-back Final Fours and was a few horrendous calls by the officials away from winning a National Championship in 2015. This team is quite obviously not as talented as that team but it is certainly good enough to make the tournament. This sudden and substantial regression can be attributed to a few different things but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow for Badger fans.
When looking into what went awry for the Badgers this season there are many different areas that could provide explanations as to what happened to this seemingly promising season. The most obvious aspect to consider is the departures from the team over the offseason. The senior class of 2017 was potentially the best single class of players in Wisconsin history and included three players who saw significant playing time during those Final Four runs. Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Nigel Hayes all played significant roles on the team for all four of their years in Madison and after Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker left for the NBA, they took the reins of the team and filled those leadership roles tremendously well. When they left this past offseason it left a significant leadership void on the team that nobody was able to fill. Add on to that the fact that the senior class of 2018 did not feature any players who saw substantial minutes at any point during the season (Other than Ethan Happ who is a redshirt junior so he technically is a part of that class) and you see how the team may have lost its identity at times during the season. With younger players who had never seen any real action in college stepping up into bigtime roles, the team took a while to really find its way. This was also the first year that the team featured primarily a lot of Greg Gard’s players rather than Bo Ryan’s. Greg Gard had been highly involved in the recruiting process during Bo Ryan’s last couple of years on campus but he was an assistant then and still had to take orders from the Ryan. Say whatever you want about Bo Ryan but the man is inarguably a basketball wizard who knows how to get more out of his players than they have in them. Greg Gard may not have that part figured out yet and with a roster full of young players with very little in-game experience that is a crucial skill to have. Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez expressed his support for Gard during the season by telling reporters “We’ve got a good coach, we’ve got good facilities and we’ll right the ship. I feel very confident that we will.” Now nobody expects or even truly wants Gard fired after one bad year but it is a thought that definitely crossed a few minds while watching this team at points during the season.
The Badgers woes this season were not limited to the basketball court unfortunately. The disappointment for Badger fans expanded to the recruiting circuit as well when four-star recruit and Wisconsin native, Tyler Herro decommitted from Wisconsin, and about a week later committed to Kentucky (I know that this is not directly related to the season itself but it definitely didn’t ease the pain of rough year). At the time Herro was one of only two players committed to the Badgers and was supposed to be the anchor that drew other players to the school. The loss of a top-tier in-state prospect is not something that the Badgers program can afford given its non-blueblood status as well as being tough university to recruit to academically. There’s no way of knowing if the Badgers play as a team influenced Herro’s decision or not but what we can say is that his decommittment hurt the teams future prospects as a team that makes deep runs in the NCAA tournament. This is another aspect of the anti-Gard rhetoric I have seen online recently. Gard was the recruiter and under his tenure we were supposed to get better players than we did under Ryan. It’s still too early to truly judge that aspect of Gard properly but this high-profile decommittment from a prospect that grew up an hour form the Kohl Center definitely damages that perception of him. Regardless as too how much blame you assign to whom in this scenario it is undeniable that Wisconsin’s basketball program as now reached the level where things like this should not be happening and certainly cannot be allowed to become a regular occurance. This isn’t football in Texas or basketball in New York, the talent pool is not big enough to let a talented in-state prospect leave the state for college.
The 2017-18 Badger men’s basketball season was a nightmare for fans on and, at times, off the court, and steps should be taken to make sure that it does not become the norm. This program has reached new heights in recent years and needless to say, the fan base is not ready for it to regress to where is used to be decades ago.