After the Badgers stumbled to the finish line in last Wednesday's game against Green Bay, my brother turned to me and said "Lucky to escape with a win. Horrible way to start the Gard era." For the majority of Wednesday's game, the Badgers moved the ball crisply, found good shots for Nigel Hayes and looked like a team that could compete in the Big Ten. But the Phoenix started to press, scored 52 points in the second half and Wisconsin's 30-point lead dropped to 3 inside the final minute before the Badgers were able to seal the victory with free throws.
Let's start with the positives. Hayes, as mentioned above, had an ultra efficient game, finishing 7-8 with 24 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and a block. Hayes is not going to be able to keep this level of efficiency all season, but allowing him to find a rhythm and take (and make) good shots is crucial for this Wisconsin team going forward. Ethan Happ finished his strong non-conference with 16 points and 8 rebounds, and Vitto Brown had 15 as well. While the frontcourt continues to be a major factor, the backcourt left something to be desired.
Both saddled with foul trouble, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter were only able to combine for a meager 9 points, while Showalter also had 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals. But perhaps the most frightening statistic, courtesy of Green Bay's press mostly, was the startling number of turnovers. Koenig coughed it up 8 times, Showalter 4, and Wisconsin finished the game with a disgusting 26 turnovers. In a game supposed to serve as a tune-up for Big Ten play, Wisconsin looked seemingly lost for the final seven minutes.
Off the bench, Badger fans can at least be pleased with the production they received. While Bo tended to stick to a shorter bench, Gard went 9-deep in his first game, with Jordan Hill playing extended minutes due to the foul trouble of Koenig and Showalter. He finished with 10 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in 22 minutes, and if either Koenig or Showalter is in foul trouble, Hill or Khalil Iverson will see extended minutes. Which brings us to Iverson, the freshman who hadn't recorded a field goal in the previous 5 games, dating back to the loss at Oklahoma. He finished with 8 points on 3-5 shooting and 5 rebounds in 19 minutes, finding his groove on the offensive end and settling in nicely.
So after 13 non-conference games, Wisconsin sits at 8-5. Without belaboring the point, losses to Western Illinois and Milwaukee are absolute killers, and with Georgetown reeling, that lost might look worse come March. But the Badgers have a few decent wins, with the most marquee being at Syracuse. Besides for Green Bay, those games were with Bo, under his guidance and tutelage. It's time for Greg's regime, Greg's legacy, regardless of how many games AD Barry Alvarez will let Gard keep the keys to the Badger engine.
It starts today with Purdue, a team built on modern college basketball with enormous bruisers inside and littered with 3-point shooters on the outside. Most plays run through the middle, with Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons manning the paint, and Caleb Swanigan getting it done on the perimeter, mid-range and down low. Swanigan will likely be checked by Nigel Hayes, a great matchup of multi-dimensional players who have more of an old school feel to their game.
On the perimeter, Koenig and Showalter will likely have the task of guarding Rapheal Davis and P.J. Thompson to start the game. Davis is a bigger guard at 6'5" that is one of the tougher matchups in the Big Ten, and is the reigning defensive player of the year. Thompson is a smaller, quicker guard, and will share the point guard duties with Johnny Hill.
Off the bench, Kendall Stephens and Dakota Mathias are 3-point shooting weapons, and the big inside bodies of Hammons and Haas give these guys plenty of room to operate on the perimeter. Ryan Cline is the last guard off the bench who might also see some time, a capable 3-point shooter as well but arguably a more gifted passer.
Regardless of who Purdue throws at the Badgers, chances are they're going to be long, active, physical and besides for the center position, a solid 3-point shooter. Wisconsin needs to establish Hayes, Happ and Koenig early, and try to force fouls on the monstrous Purdue big men. If Happ can draw them away from the basket, it should help open up the driving lane, not allowing Hammons (7 blocks last game) to have a chance to swat it.
For Greg Gard, this is all he wanted. Barry Alvarez would have most likely gone with an outside hire for next season, and with Wisconsin sitting at 8-5 and Gard finally sorting out a personal matter, there was no better time than now. If Gard fails, Badger fans can say the team was doomed from the start and the lack of depth and recruiting falls directly on Bo's shoulders. If he succeeds, there will be serious pressure on Alvarez and Wisconsin to extend Gard an offer, especially if he finishes somewhere around 12-6 in the Big Ten. For Gard and Wisconsin, the show starts now. It's only a matter of time to see whether he can truly follow in the footsteps of Bo.