Wisconsin’s disappointing season ends in promising fashion

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NEW YORK — This season was the test, the year in which we learned what we needed to know about Greg Gard’s ability to captain the Wisconsin basketball program in the post-Bo Ryan era.

And while a 15-18 season is a disaster for a program that had finished top four in the Big Ten for 16 straight seasons, it’s hard to come away from their season-ending loss to No. 1 seed Michigan State as anything other than bullish on the future of the program.

In his first season with the Badgers, Gard took over in December when Ryan abruptly announced his retirement after a game against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. They were 7-5 at the time and promptly lost four of their first five games in Big Ten play before Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and a roster full of Ryan’s juniors carried that team into the NCAA tournament and through to the Sweet 16.

In Gard’s first season as the full-time head coach, it was more of the same. The Badgers, led by Ryan’s seniors, won 23 games, made the Big Ten tournament title game and, once again, played their way into the Sweet 16 thanks to a win over No. 1 seed Villanova.

Under the tutelage of Ryan, Wisconsin basketball was built on a foundation of player development. They identified the guys that fit the way they played and the culture of hard work, patience and earning your playing time. You may not know the name Frank Kaminsky when he commits, but you will when he graduates. Koenig, Hayes, Zak Showalter, Vitto Brown. They were products of that program, that culture, that regime.

This year is really the first time that Wisconsin has been a team comprised of Gard’s guys, and the end result of the season was … not great. After a loss to No. 1 seed Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament on Friday afternoon, Wisconsin’s season came to an end with a 15-18 record, the below-.500 mark ensuring that missing the NCAA tournanment for the first time in 20 years won’t even end in an NIT berth.

And yet, it’s hard to look at the way that this year played out and be anything other than bullish on the Badgers moving forward.

Hear me out.

This is as young as Wisconsin has ever been. Ethan Happ is a redshirt junior, as is Khalil Iverson, but the rest of their rotation is more or less made up of underclassmen. Brevin Pritzl is a sophomore, as is D’Mitrik Trice. Brad Davison, Aleem Ford, Kobe King and Nate Reuvers are freshmen. That doesn’t include Trevor Anderson, a transfer from Green Bay that, a source said, has been playing well in practices while sitting out. Barring Happ declaring for the draft — he told reporters after the game he will return is he’s not a first round pick — the Badgers are going to get everyone back next season, including Trice and King; they’ve missed the last three months through injury.

“The biggest thing that will help us is we get older and healthier,” Gard said after the game. “We have no seniors in the rotation, two guys that were out for the majority of the season. We’ve got a lot of things to get better at and grow, [because] this is the youngest we’ve been since the last time [we missed the tournament].”

Youth and inexperience doesn’t always lead to improvement, not if the young players are the roster aren’t good players or aren’t coached well enough. Put another way, there’s a reason that Rutgers is still at the bottom of the Big Ten even though they recruit freshman that turn into seniors eventually.

But that doesn’t appear that it will be the case with this Wisconsin roster for one, simple reason: They got better. At one point this season, they were 10-15 overall and 3-9 in the Big Ten after losing five straight and eight out of nine. They easily could have packed this thing in, enjoyed Madison’s party scene and tried to ignore the fact that they were playing out the end of the worst season the program has had since most of the players on the roster have been alive.

Instead, they won five of their last eight games, including a pair of losses to Michigan State by a combined eight points.

“I couldn’t be more proud about how they’ve grown together,” Gard said. “There’s not a more improved team in the league, and I don’t know about across the country, but how they’ve worked together and how they’ve grown, I’m proud.”

And that’s where the optimism lies.

“This team is a microcosm of our players over the years,” Gard added. “We’ve been successful with a lot of late-bloomers. We don’t have any seniors, just a couple juniors that are playing. This team was a late-blooming team. A lot of teams would have folded up shop and quit, but this group kept persevering, battling and getting better.”

Wisconsin’s success comes from player development, and while it took longer than many in the state hoped to get there, the Badgers did, eventually.

They got better during the season, and now they’ll have eight months to continue that development arc; the offseason is, in fact, when players improve the most.

There are concerns about Wisconsin’s recruiting class, and there is no guarantee that players with a surgery in their future are going to be what they were before undergoing the knife, but the truth is that if the Badgers remain on the same course, this year will prove to be a blip in the program’s history as opposed to a new normal under Greg Gard.

And hell, it may give Gard a chance to start an NCAA tournament and Big Ten top four streak of his own.