For those of you that are slowly integrating yourselves into college basketball once again, Thursday's match-up of Ohio State and Wisconsin may have been your first taste of what the Badgers look like under interim coach Greg Gard. What you saw -- in particular, the juicy post and dish opportunities that turned into easy three point attempts -- probably had you believing that the Buzzcuts are still the same Buzzcuts even with Bo Ryan watching from home.
They were methodical and precise. Timely and smart.
Like a Big Ten surgeon.
Thursday's display was part of a five game, cheese-curd revolution. One in which has the Badgers flirting with the "Last Four In" and "Last Four Out" boxes of experts Bracketology picks; something that looked unlikely just a few short weeks ago. While a lot of this can be attributed to the players digging deep after getting beat up against Northwestern, you also have to commend Gard for identifying the glaring issues on both ends of the floor and fixing them on the fly.
It has been a stand up job from an interim coach fighting like hell to keep the job he is ever so passionate about. He has gone into every practice and every game as if Athletic Director Barry Alvarez is never going to ask him to come back. And to make a decision half way through the season, with everything on the line, to reinvent and try something new to invigorate a downtrodden team is so ballsy; but it's worked. Gard has turned Wisconsin into one of the most dangerous squads in the Big Ten conference the past couple of weeks.
And a team I can't help but root for... and I'm saying that as an Iowa fan (it probably helps that I have a history with Bo Ryan and the Badgers program as my high school coach played for Ryan at Wisconsin-Platteville, but still).
After starting the conference slate with a 1-4 record -- with loses against the likes of Purdue, Indiana, Maryland and Northwestern -- the Badgers are now the winners of five straight after Thursday night's 79-68, "closer than the final score showed" win over Ohio State (a win that may not be the resume builder they so desperately need, but a morale and confidence booster).
While it may still be too early for Alvarez to commit fully to Bo Ryan's predecessor (which is understandable), if Gard can keep Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament picture -- bubble and all -- it seems like a mortal lock at this point to let him take over fully.
And why shouldn't it be? During the majority of the Badgers first half of the season -- especially after Ryan retired abruptly -- the Badgers looked lost; especially late in games. They looked tired both mentally and physically. Their go to players didn't seem as though they were fully engaged. The offense that was always so prompt, poignant and slowly lethal under Ryan, seemed misaligned and cluttered; including early spacing issues that stemmed from players being thrown into roles they weren't fully prepared for and a duplicity in personnel (Happ and Hayes).
And it directly affected the win/loss columns. Wisconsin compiled a 2-7 record in games decided by six points or less through the Northwestern game. 2-7. That hasn't happened in Madison in a long, long time. Ryan's teams always seemed to close those type of games out with a victory. But under Gard, early on, the Badgers couldn't quite seem to push themselves over the edge.
That is until Nigel Hayes went off. Went off on himself and his teammates. Begged the Badgers to take a long, pressing look at themselves and ask if they were doing everything they could to win. If they were leaving it all on the floor. If they were happy with playing like dogs. With getting beat late in games over and over and over.
He created a spark.
And Gard doused it in kerosene by changing the teams overall offensive strategy, pushing for his players to earn trips to the free throw line and to take advantage of mismatch high post/low post opportunities.
They listened. During the majority of the five game win streak, the Badgers have made it a point to get the ball down low to both Hayes and redshirt freshman Ethan Happ and let them go to work. And Happ and Hayes have made minced meat out of the Big Ten opponents trying to stick with them.
More of this please: https://t.co/tm2KpBIWkr— Wisconsin Basketball (@BadgerMBB) February 5, 2016
Because of this, the pair -- who were in this weird your turn/my turn funk -- are starting to garner a ton of attention. Teams around the Big Ten are bending their defenses to stop these two, often flashing guards down low to try to prevent one-on-one isolation's within ten feet of the basket. And what opens up when guards start flashing down low?
The three ball.
If Wisconsin can be more consistent from outside -- 13 made triples against Ohio State, the teams best shooting performance of the season -- Bucky is going to be a hard out; even with road tests ahead of them at Maryland, Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue.
But if they duplicate Thursday nights offensive iteration, they're surely good enough to beat each and every one of those teams. If Hayes continues to engage when Wisconsin needs a bucket, Happ continues to muck it up on both ends of the floor while Bronson Koenig, Jordan Hill, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter start knocking down three's like there's no tomorrow, the Badgers could easily finish with 11 or 12 conference wins -- complete with the necessary resume building wins it needs to jump off the bubble entirely.
This is classic swing offense action. Love it. pic.twitter.com/YDiU9uV8tW— Big Ten Geeks (@bigtengeeks) February 5, 2016
Wisconsin, for the first time under Gard, finally has an identity; and an exciting one to boot.
If he can continue to drive this squad, push them to make heady plays in crunch time and get better every day on the defensive end, Gard will no longer have to wake up every day as if he will be let go tomorrow.
But, I bet he still will.