Greg Gard has faced plenty of adversity before — on and off the basketball court. However, following Sunday’s loss to Northwestern he may be facing the biggest challenge of his coaching career today.
Losing on Sunday at home in the Kohl Center to Northwestern was the titanic finally hitting the iceberg. The signs to steer away from trouble have been coming for a long time, but UW chose to continue to steer right in to it.
What has been a prolonged offensive drought finally bit the Badgers, costing them a prime opportunity to show they were worthy of the top 16 seeds in the upcoming NCAA tournament. Instead, they proved the critics right and laid another egg with a quality opponent in front of them.
It also dropped the Badgers lead in the Big Ten to just one game over Purdue and Maryland, while snapping an eight-game win streak in the process.
That eight-game win streak was certainly impressive, but it also masked problems that eventually caught the Badgers on Sunday. UW was able to lean on one or two guys to get going and pull them over the finish line as of late.
Northwestern’s ability to render Ethan Happ completely useless for one half of basketball coupled with ineffective play from Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes spelled trouble for sure.
Those three players have all been able to help Wisconsin mask its overall struggles and get them victories with stellar individual play at different points. Wisconsin’s three-headed monster couldn’t find one of them to show up for the first time since the loss to Purdue.
In the end it was a seven-point loss for Wisconsin and one that clearly leaves Gard without much in the way of answers. After all, it wasn’t like Gard didn’t try to throw the kitchen sink at the problem on Sunday.
He tried just about every combination possible, thought he had an answer coming out of halftime as UW went on a 10-0 run and then watched as it all reverted back to the pattern that got them in trouble in the first half.
Wisconsin’s most reliable veterans — Vitto Brown, Hayes, Koenig and Zach Showalter had absolutely nothing in the offensive tank when the Badgers needed it most on Sunday. The four senior starters shot a combined 35.5 percent (11 of 31) from the field against the Wildcats.
It wasn’t just them either, as there were no answers at all from a bench that needed to step up.
Rotation players like Jordan Hill, Brevin Pritzl and Charlie Thomas haven’t been able to provide anything on the offensive end of the court either. Those three players along with the usually reliable Khalil Iverson combined for just three points off the bench against Northwestern.
Hayes called this game a wake up call for Wisconsin going forward when speaking to the media after the game.
“Experience has been a great teacher,” Hayes said, via the Wisconsin State Journal. “Like the rat in the box, when you push it, food comes and that teaches you a lot. But if you put your hand on a hot stove, (you get the) same reaction except for some reason you really don’t touch the stove anymore. So apparently we have to lose in order to learn the things that we’ve already been (talking about).”
He may be right about a team sometimes needing that ultimate adversity to right the ship. But, this is still a team full of players who have seen the highest of highs and the craziest of lows in the program.
Should seniors with four years of experience really need a reminder of what is at stake to play well?
If so, that is on them, especially considering what Hayes had to say about the coaching staff on Sunday.
“It’s not like we’ve lost the last six games in a row, we won them,” said Hayes. “But we keep doing those mistakes and it caught up to us. That’s what we’ve said amongst ourselves, the coaching staff was telling us that and you guys have been saying the same thing. Hopefully, now that we had to unfortunately lose a game, we’ll start to take that step in that direction of going from a mediocre-good team to a great team.”
So, everyone around a group of experienced and highly regarded players was warning them of failure to come if changes weren’t being made…and they did nothing to make those changes?
If so, that isn’t good news for Gard and his coaching staff. The whole point of coaching is to teach and have the players execute what you are teaching and preaching. Clearly that isn’t happening, and that is where Gard’s biggest test is going to come from.
How does he get his players attention and how does he turn a team with a systemic issue on the offensive end of the court in to the team that was averaging the highest points per game in school history?
As much as those of us in the media will tell you it is gut-check time for the players, it is also gut-check time for Gard and the rest of the coaching staff.
Let us remember what all the talk was for this team heading in to the season.
It was all about a return to the Final Four and finishing off a National Championship run, right? That kind of talk seems laughable considering the way this team played Sunday and more importantly has played for weeks now.
Learning how to survive and thrive in close games is important come NCAA tournament time, because tough games are going to come your way. No one eases their way to a Final Four berth.
It’s one thing to do that for a game or two, it is a whole different thing to do it for a week or three.
That’s what has happened to the Wisconsin Badgers as of late, and Gard somehow faces a bigger challenge now than he did last season in just getting Wisconsin in to the NCAA tournament.