Anybody who has watched Wisconsin’s basketball team for an extended period of time this season recognizes it has been an unusually painful experience. Injuries and subsequent depth issues, lack of player development, inconsistent offense and suspect defense have led to the Badgers’ worst record in 20 years.
Wisconsin stands 10-13 overall, 3-7 in Big Ten play, entering a home game Thursday night against Northwestern. It will take a late-season push for the Badgers to stay in the top 10 of the conference and avoid playing on the first day of the league tournament. An NCAA Tournament appearance is but a dream, barring a miraculous and unexpected dash through the Big Ten Tournament to steal an automatic bid.
It is under these circumstances that we arrive at a tweet from Doug Gottlieb, a national college basketball analyst who hosts a show on FOX Sports Radio. Last Tuesday, an underachieving Iowa team was in the process of methodically crushing Wisconsin 85-67 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Badgers gave up the first 9 points and never held a lead. During the second half, Gottlieb tweeted that he felt as though Wisconsin’s program was “in trouble.”
Iowa is whoopin Wisconsin.. feel like the Badgers program is in trouble
— Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow) January 24, 2018
Not surprisingly, Gottlieb’s tweet drew passionate viewpoints on both sides. Some argued that Wisconsin was allowed a down year after reaching 19 straight NCAA Tournaments. Others suggested that, after four straight Sweet 16 appearances that included back-to-back Final Fours, Wisconsin hadn’t capitalized on recent success, making it fair to question where Wisconsin was headed.
So, is this merely one down season or the unceremonious start of a downward trend? Let’s attempt to tackle that topic.
For starters, there are two distinctions to make. One is whether your expectations are that Wisconsin should return to the Final Four level attained in 2014 and 2015, the last of those two seasons coming with the best Badgers team in program history. The other is whether your expectations are for Wisconsin to contend for an NCAA Tournament berth every season, with the potential for an occasional deep run in the Big Dance.
The first expectation is simply unreasonable. Bo Ryan has more victories than any Wisconsin basketball coach. In his first 11 seasons, the Badgers never reached the Final Four. Five times, his teams lost on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. He reached the Final Four threshold on the strength of two generational players, Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, who were first-round NBA draft picks, as well as a stellar supporting cast. Even a Hall of Fame coach like Bill Self, who recruits the best players in the country every season, has been to only two Final Fours in his first 14 seasons at Kansas.
The other expectation — that Wisconsin should field winning teams and vie for NCAA Tournament berths — is far more reasonable. And there is little reason to believe the Badgers are about to fall off a cliff in that regard.
Obviously, this season’s team is not the one Wisconsin coach Greg Gard thought he would have when practices began in September. D’Mitrik Trice was supposed to be the starting point guard who would play 30 minutes a game and provide the ability to score on possessions that ran late in the shot clock. Kobe King was supposed to be the instant-offense freshman spark plug off the bench, with a dynamic array of scoring moves.
Neither of those players has been on the court since Dec. 6. King underwent season-ending left knee surgery, while Trice has not returned from right foot surgery. The importance of their absences cannot be overstated.
Wisconsin already was going to be a young team whose only returning starter was All-America forward Ethan Happ. Without Trice and King, Gard has been forced to rely even more on freshman Brad Davison, who has slid over to point guard despite playing with a left shoulder that continues to pop out of its socket and likely will require offseason surgery.
The other available guards are former walk-on T.J. Schlundt and current walk-on Walt McGrory, who was forced to burn his redshirt season. The lack of guard depth has handcuffed Gard in leaning more on his inconsistent frontcourt role players. Take two of the top four guards off nearly any college basketball team in the country and see what happens.
Wisconsin should return every key contributor next season other than former walk-on Aaron Moesch. Right now, that means 98.7 percent of the scoring, 98.8 percent of the rebounding and 98.2 percent of the assists. Brevin Pritzl will be back, Trice and King will be healthy, Davison presumably will undergo successful surgery to repair his dislocated left shoulder, and Trevor Anderson will be available to play after sitting out as a redshirt for his transfer from Green Bay.
That means Wisconsin will have at least five guards capable of playing meaningful minutes, plus Schlundt in a pinch. Happ and Khalil Iverson will be seniors. Aleem Ford will return after serving as the team’s most consistent 3-point shooter in his redshirt freshman season. And Nate Reuvers, who has shown as much short-term progress as anybody, will be stronger with a full season of playing experience.
There are reasonable questions to be asked about why Wisconsin’s junior class has not developed as anticipated, particularly the front-court trio of Charlie Thomas, Alex Illikainen and Andy Van Vliet. But there also is no real way to predict how much a high school player will improve. Some of that falls on the coaching staff, and the rest is up to the player.
Wisconsin struck gold with Kaminsky, whose other scholarship offers were from Bradley, DePaul, Northern Illinois, Northwestern and Southern Illinois. Wisconsin was the only school from outside his home state to bother offering. Kaminsky, of course, went on to become the consensus national college basketball player of the year in 2015. That is clearly not a normal career arc. Thomas, Illikainen — and perhaps even Van Vliet — can still strengthen Wisconsin next season if they return. Experience and continuity doesn’t guarantee success, but it helps.
There is angst among the fan base because Wisconsin doesn’t have a future recruiting class with instant impact players. But just because the 2018 recruiting class lacks star power doesn’t mean Gard and the staff suddenly forgot how to recruit.
Keep in mind that the 2017 class has the potential to be one of the better classes in recent memory with Davison, Reuvers and King. Wisconsin’s 2018 class has an unexpected hole in it because in-state product Tyler Herro de-committed after a year and signed with Kentucky. That scenario left the Badgers scrambling, and they’re still attempting to recover.
However, Wisconsin is in position to add another piece to its 2018 class, either from a high school prospect or the graduate-transfer route, and could thrive in 2019. Wisconsin has offers out to four players in 2019, including point guard DJ Carton (Bettendorf, Iowa) and forward Nobal Days (Racine, Wis.). Days is the No. 1 player in Wisconsin and Carton is the No. 2 player in Iowa — and the No. 4 point guard in the country. Both players hold the Badgers in high regard as their recruitment intensifies.
Forward Jalen Johnson (Sun Prairie, Wis.) also looms as a prized recruit in 2020, although Wisconsin will have to fend off Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke, among others. But unlike football, it only takes a handful of players to turn around a basketball program.
Wisconsin basketball may be at a crossroads of sorts as Gard closes out his third season in charge, magnified by the program’s sustained success. But are the Badgers “in trouble?” Only if they’re 10-13 at this time next season or the season after. And given the returning personnel and recruiting prospects in play, don’t bet on it.