Opinion piece by Peter Cameron

Remember what it was like.

The Badger Men’s Basketball Team, coming off its greatest season in the modern era, was in free fall.

After a heartbreaking loss to Duke in the 2015 national title game, they struggled to a 7-5 record to start the following season. In December, a depleted Bo Ryan retired and the program turned the reins over to Greg Gard, his assistant for more than two decades. The Badgers lost five of their next seven games, dropping their record to 9-9. It looked certain the program’s incredible run of top-four conference finishes and NCAA appearances was dead.

But the new head coach from little Cobb, Wisconsin, proved to be a magician. His boys won 11 of their final 13, finished tied for third in the Big Ten and earned a 7 seed in the NCAA tournament. They stole a second round NCAA game from #2 seed Xavier with heroics from Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter, and were robbed by a no-call on a foul against Notre Dame that prevented them from the Elite Eight.

The extraordinary resurgence that year told me Gard was the man to lead the program in the post-Ryan era. Little I’ve seen since then has shaken my belief. Those calling for Gard to be replaced need context. I’ve got some right here.

Gard isn’t a great coach? Look at his results.

There will never be another Ryan, an exceptional teacher who regularly took marginal college athletes and defeated teams loaded with future NBA talent. The couple times he had NBA talent in Madison, they flirted with #1 rankings and national titles.

Ryan, who has an incredible career record of 747-233, all within the UW system, is already in the College Basketball Hall of Fame and likely will enter basketball’s most sacred shrine, the Naismith Hall of Fame, at some point.

With the Badgers, Ryan won three Big Ten titles, and shared a title once for a total of four in his 14 full seasons. Those are the program’s only conference titles in the modern era.

Gard doesn’t have a conference title yet, but does have a second and third place finish.

Ryan reached or surpassed the Sweet 16 in seven of his 14 seasons, a 50% rate.

In Gard’s four postseasons, he has reached two Sweet 16s, another 50% rate. He was unlucky both times to not go further.

Gard won the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year Award in his first year. Ryan won that award in 2008.

Ryan of course never missed an NCAA tournament and amazingly, never finished below fourth in the conference. Gard broke both those streaks in the perfect storm season of 2017-2018, when the Badgers finished 15-18 overall and 9th in the Big Ten. That’s the only time his team finished below fourth place.

That unlucky year, in which UW lost their starting (and only) point guard in D’Mitrik Trice and a second important guard in Kobe King to injury for most of the year, was a bucket of ice water in the faces of Badger Nation.

Fans seem to forget that Ryan’s teams rarely had to deal with season-ending injuries, and NEVER lost two rotational players in one season. And 2017-2018 was a rebuilding year, one where the program had just lost four seniors, including stars Koenig and Nigel Hayes.

Yet even in a year of so much misfortune and defeat, Gard showed why he’s the man for the job.

By the end of the season, he had built his short-handed team into an effective machine. The Badgers closed out the year winning five of eight. The three losses all came to ranked teams, including two excruciatingly tight defeats to #2 ranked Michigan State, heavily armed with NBA lottery picks and other future pros. The Badgers were NCAA tournament ready. But they ran out of time.

Last year, the Badgers finally were healthy and burned the nets up to start the season, rising to #12 in the AP poll in December. The shooting cooled for the back end of the year, but they beat teams they were supposed to and still finished fourth in the conference. Sadly, the shooting went sub zero in a first-round tournament loss to Oregon.

This year, the boys have shown flashes of greatness, but also discombobulation.

Gard’s teams haven’t always looked great on offense. But have you forgotten the Ryan teams that struggled to score? There were several. Even the great national title runner up survived a long scoring drought to beat undefeated Kentucky in the Final Four. Another drought proved fatal against Duke in the final.

Like Ryan, Gard’s teams have consistently been one of the top defensive teams in the conference and often the country, a sign of great coaching.

Gard can’t develop players?

Some criticism is blowing through the dairy air that Gard can’t develop players. We’ll throw out the entirety of the great development that occurred under Ryan, all of which Gard contributed to, and focus on his head coaching tenure.

Nate Reuvers is the greatest counterpoint against this argument. The rail-thin Minnesota kid who got tossed around like a rag doll as a freshman is now an oak tree in the lane. He’s also leading the team in scoring. At about 14 points per game in a very slow offense, Reuvers is looking like an NBA player.

King’s surprise departure was a surprise blow to the solar plexus for all of Badger Nation. But in his second full season, the La Crosse native was a starter and the Badgers’ best athlete and scorer when he was locked in. He remained inconsistent but took a big step forward this year with multiple 20-point games.

And after a gutsy and impressive freshman season, in which he was forced to start out of position at the point, Brad Davison hasn’t improved as much as many would have liked. He’s still likely to be a four-year starter who plays hard and smart and defends well every night.

Gard can’t recruit?

However the class of Davison, King and Reuvers finishes out, it’s already been a success. Of the trio, two will be 4-year starters, and King will have his best years somewhere else. It’s still a big win for a single recruiting class, even with the departure of King.

After that class, recruiting had been down. Those quiet years have hampered the current state of the program.

But Gard and his staff silenced critics this fall by winning an unprecedented run of commitments, starting with the Davis twins, Johnny and Jordan, also from La Crosse. Johnny has the athleticism of a young Devin Harris, and Jordan has the body and physicality to be a lockdown defender. Four other good recruits, including one rated in the top 100, also committed to Bucky after, giving the Badgers a solid foundation for the future.

And to be fair, do you remember all those blue chip recruits Ryan signed in his incredibly successful 15 years at UW?

Me neither.

Don’t forget that despite all of Ryan’s success, only TWICE in his 14 years did UW beat the big programs to land a top recruit. Both were in-state players. Brian Butch, a McDonald’s All-American from Appleton, who then redshirted, and Koenig, the sharp-shooting point guard from La Crosse.

Gard’s replacement?

Still not convinced that Gard is our guy? Okay. Who’s going to replace him?

Despite its success in the last 20 years, Wisconsin is not the most attractive program for ambitious coaches. Academic standards for players are higher. That reportedly cost the program at least two big in-state recruits over the past decade, Vander Blue and Diamond Stone.

Many UW fans would like to see Tony Bennett, especially after his University of Virginia Cavaliers won the national title last year. But, when Ryan announced his retirement from coaching, Virginia wrote a huge buyout clause in Bennett’s contract. It now sits at $1 million.

And, in September UVA extended Bennett, keeping him under contract for the next seven years. Bennett received about $7 million in compensation from Virginia last season. Gard got about $1.9 million last year.

Maybe Bennett wants to come back to the program his father Dick Bennett built into a consistent winner and where Tony Bennett started his coaching career. Much of his extended family, including his parents, still lives in Wisconsin. While at Washington State, Tony Bennett reportedly turned down an offer to be head coach of Indiana. Was he keeping his options open at Wisconsin, not wanting to make a potential move within the conference?

It’s nice to know he’s out there and possibly interested should we need him. But we don’t. At least not yet.

And say UW made a run at Bennett and he turned it down? That happened the last time the program went after a big name coach in Wisconsin native Rick Majerus. But the athletic department had a pretty damn good backup plan in former Wisconsin assistant coach Ryan. Does UW have a great backup in mind now?

The culture at the big Wisconsin athletic programs has been hiring within the system, hiring a guy with local connection. The athletic department broke the rule with Utah-native Gary Andersen, who left after just two years to return to the West. He was reportedly upset by the school’s higher academic standards. The hire and defection set the program back. Luckily, Madison native and UW-Madison grad Paul Chryst was waiting in reserve.

And if you hire a rising coach who lacks Wisconsin roots and he’s successful here, he’s not going to stay.

That’s what Bill Self did at Illinois. He built a winner, then left when Kansas made him an offer four years later. Illinois had one glorious season under his replacement, but the traditionally-great program has been middling for 15 years. That could happen here if the right decisions aren’t made.

So if Tony Bennett turns you down, who do you hire? If a great Wisconsin guy with the quality of a Ryan or a Chryst is out there, I haven’t heard of him.

Maybe Gard isn’t the right man to continue Ryan’s legacy. But what we’ve seen the past four years, on the court and off, tells me he is.

My prediction: Gard has been, and will continue to be, about the same as Ryan. He’ll make the tournament every year, win conference titles here and there and compete for a national title once a decade.

And that’s pretty damn good.

Peter Cameron writes for The Badger Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative journalism organization in Wisconsin. Cameron can be reached at pcameron@thebadgerproject.org.