MADISON, Wis. (AP) By retiring at midseason at Wisconsin, Bo Ryan effectively allowed top assistant Greg Gard to have a three-month audition to prove that he could handle the head coaching job on a permanent basis.
In his first full day on the job on Wednesday, Gard didn’t appear to be feeling any pressure.
“I’ve never worried about the standpoint of what the end result will be,” Gard said.
“So for us, our main focus is how can we continue to move this team forward and improve,” he said. “How can we get some of these younger guys to play a little older?”
The Badgers (7-5) struggled in the first few weeks of the season, losing more games than they did all of last year, when they went 36-4 and advanced to their second straight Final Four.
But Wisconsin reached those heights with a band of experienced and more talented players, led by national player of the year Frank Kaminsky. This year’s squad is less experienced and more reliant on freshmen.
The players appeared to be a little dazed after the game, even though Ryan had discussed retirement for months. Ryan never offered a specific timetable, and hedged a few times about even coaching beyond 2015-16.
Gard said he didn’t know that Tuesday night’s win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi would be Ryan’s last appearance until before the game. And even then, he wasn’t entirely sure until after the final buzzer.
“I just waited for his direction and I just said, `Hey, let me know what the plan is and what you need from me and what’s going to be next,”‘ Gard recounted.
Athletic director Barry Alvarez appointed Gard the interim coach. He plans to evaluate Gard’s work and make a decision at the end of the season about how the school will proceed.
In speaking with the players in the locker room after Ryan broke the news, Alvarez focused his message on embracing the future.
“Don’t be afraid of change,” Alvarez said.
How the Badgers go about getting better remains a big question. A string of 14 straight NCAA appearances during Ryan’s tenure is in jeopardy.
Defense has been a problem at times, as it was in the shocking 69-67 loss to lowly Western Illinois in the season opener at home. Lately, the Badgers appear to be having problems getting off good shots, and have struggled in late-game situations with the ball.
Not that Gard is planning any wholesale changes.
“Obviously our brand of basketball and our pillars of success are pretty well cemented and time-tested,” said Gard, who has worked with Ryan for 20 years, including the last 14-plus in Madison.
At Wisconsin, that means playing tough defense without fouling and using hands. On offense, that means taking care of the ball and playing with efficiency.
“Will there be additions, things that we need to get better at … we need to spit-shine a little bit and improve upon? Some of that is with experience,” Gard said.
Former Badgers assistant coach Howard Moore, now an analyst with the Big Ten Network, suggested that Gard might incorporate more of Ryan’s swing offense system back on to the floor. The system relies on good passing, screening and cutting from all five players on the floor.
During the last two years especially, with Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and other talented veterans, the Badgers had the experience to play with less structure, Moore said.
“I think that is as much change as they need,” Moore said. “Defensively, more attention to details, keep guys in front.”
Junior Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are returning starters from last year’s run to the title game. Two other juniors, forward Vitto Brown and guard Zak Showalter, are now starters after coming off the bench last season.
Otherwise, Wisconsin has been playing just freshmen of late. The Badgers also don’t have a scholarship senior on the roster.
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