When a reporter mentioned the hill, Greg Gard countered with a mountain.
As lofty as the preseason bar the pundits have set for the Wisconsin basketball team is — the media’s pick to win the Big Ten, the plaudits tossed at forward Nigel Hayes — the second-year basketball coach says the one in the Badgers’ locker room is even higher.
“The expectations on the outside will never surpass what’s on the inside,” the Badgers coach said Thursday morning at Big Ten men’s basketball media day in Washington, D.C. “And what those guys have inside that locker room, and what they expect and what they want to accomplish.
“And so, from that standpoint, you know, the most important piece of trying to embrace or attack these expectations are your 17 players in the locker room and what they understand and what they want and what their goals are. So for me, this hasn’t changed anything. Because it won’t change our process, it won’t change how we practice, what e need to work on, what we need to improve upon.
“We embrace the expectations. Like you said, it’s a great mark (for the program), not only on our current players that are returning but also the reputation that our program has developed through the league and nationally. And you embrace those things and you understand, it’s going to be a long process, it’s going to be a journey through it and we’re going to have to play extremely well and continue to improve along the way. And that’s what we’ve talked about.”
They’ve also talked about trust. And growth. And how they’ve learned to believe in both after starting last winter with a 9-9 record, 1-4 in the Big Ten and then winning 11 of their final 12 regular-season contests en route to a third consecutive run to the Sweet 16.
“Are we going to make sure we’re better today than we were yesterday, and so forth down the road,” Gard said of his Badgers, who finished 22-13, 12-6 in the league. “And understanding that’s still a process. Just like (when) we got out of (that) 1-4, 9-9 hole last year, it was about trusting the process, making the most of every single opportunity and we’ve had to make sure we don’t waste any day this year.
“I’ve talked a lot about, ‘Check every box.’ Make sure we did everything the right way in September. We’re in the process of trying to do everything the right way in October.”
Part of that process, Gard joked, was sending his staff out to the bookstore to purchase a few of the preseason preview magazines that hit the newsstands this autumn. The Badgers’ coach said the periodicals confirmed what he found out last year: The Big Ten is as deep as it’s ever been. Deeper, even.
“I said, ‘Guys, it’s just like the last 15 years, it’s going to be a fist-fight all the way through it,’” Gard said. “And it doesn’t matter who you play, where you play or when you play them, you’re going to have your hands full.
“There’s not a single — and I use the term, there’s no ‘get-well’ game. There’s not a game where you can show up and work on some things. You better bring your ‘A’ game all the time.”
Gard also reflected on the roller-coaster that’s been the last 16 months or so of his life. The Badgers coach and longtime Bo Ryan assistant replaced his mentor last December, 12 games into the young season on an interim basis and was handed the baton on a full-time after the season. He also lost his father Glen to cancer last November.
“I’ve said many times, it’s the best year and the worst year of your life, with what’s going on personally, with our dad passing away,” the coach reflected. “You ride the roller-coaster (and) make the best of it. And you appreciate those who helped you through those tough times.”
The Badgers coach also noted that he supports the passion, and very public stances, that senior forward Hayes and senior point guard Bronson Koenig have taken on contentious social issues of the day. Koenig, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, traveled to North Dakota last month to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Hayes, meanwhile, has been outspoken on social media in his support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and in his criticisms of the shooting deaths of African Americans by local law enforcement.
“I’m extremely proud of them,” Gard said, “in that they’ve used the college experience to go way beyond just being an athlete.”