NEW YORK CITY — Seventh. Wait. Wisconsin?
“You pick them seventh at your own peril,” Robbie Hummel said.
Seventh. These guys?
“It doesn’t matter,” Badgers basketball coach Greg Gard said. “It doesn’t change our approach at all. Our practice schedule doesn’t change. I don’t have different — oh, we’re picked to finish seventh, let’s practice and do these drills, if we’re picked to finish first, we’ll do these drills.”
Seventh. After all these years?
“We’re losing — we did lose — people that’ve been here pretty much forever,” Wisconsin guard D’Mitrik Trice said with a shrug during the dying hours of Big Ten men’s basketball media day at Madison Square Garden. “And everybody’s probably glad that they’re gone now.
“It’s a chance for Coach Gard to show that he is a good coach. And I think he is a great coach, and he’s learned a lot from Coach [Bo] Ryan before him, I think, just being underneath him. And the culture is already set here at Wisconsin. So I don’t think that Coach Gard has really any pressure or anything like that.”
But he does have — well, not doubters, but worriers. Worriers and questions.
Is there life after Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig?
What the devil is the backcourt going to look like?
If teams throw three guys at Ethan Happ, where does the ball go next?
Is the decommitment of local prep hero Tyler Herro an aberration, or a harbinger of dread?
“This is going to be our first look at a Greg Gard team as opposed to Greg Gard coaching a team with Bo’s players,” Hummel, the former Purdue standout and new Big Ten Network analyst, told Land of 10. “So that’ll be really interesting.”
This bit is interesting, too: In an unofficial preseason poll of 28 Big Ten writers assembled earlier this week, the scribes picked Wisconsin to finish seventh.
Seventh. The Badgers, who host a Red/White scrimmage Sunday at the Kohl Center, haven’t finished outside the league’s top 4 club since the winter of 2000.
“We’re more process-oriented than we are results-oriented,” Gard said. “So we’re going to go through our process, the things we need to work on, starting with very simple passing and catching drills that first day of practice, to rebounding drills to transition defense drills, our progression.
“Now do we morph and adjust as we see the identity of a team take shape? Do we need to do more on Category A a little bit more than we do we Category B? Yeah, I adjust and throw a couple more drills or more, maybe, drills a little longer in practice or revisit some things.
“But, by and large, I know on the outside of our locker room, that doesn’t matter. The outside doesn’t impact any games. The opinions can’t score points in a game or play any defense. So that’s going to be on us. That’s what we need to get ready for.”
‘You can’t make mistakes’
The consensus feels that if a 20th straight NCAA Tournament berth is in the offing, it’s probably going to be earned the hard way. Conventional wisdom says Year 3 — well, Year 2.5, technically — is the one in which we learn about Gard as a teacher and a crafter and a builder, as opposed to a tweaker and a caretaker.
The smooth and gifted Happ (14 points per game, 9 rebounds per game) aside, it’s a blank canvas. Four starters — including postseason heroes Hayes and Koenig, the backbone of a unit that reached two Final Fours and four Sweet 16s — have moved on. The last time the Badgers returned a roster with so few returning collegiate minutes was also the last time Wisconsin failed to win at least 20 games, winding up 19-12 in 2005-06.
Although that team danced, too. And cracked the Big Ten’s top 4.
“What Bo and Gard did a great job of was, as they got more talented, they were able to free that talent up, let them go a little more,” Fox Sports 1 analyst and former Ohio State star Jim Jackson noted. “Now, when you don’t have that amount of talent, you reign it back in to what you’re known for. Which is execution.
“So I’d look for Greg Gard and Wisconsin to be kind of that team they were in the past — maybe not as talented, but in order to beat them, you can’t make mistakes. Because they’re not going to make mistakes.”
Seventh. With this system?
— FastModel Sports (@FastModel) February 14, 2015
“I know Bo kind of got away from the swing a little bit,” Hummel countered. “When he had Frank [Kaminski] and Sam [Dekker] and those guys, they played a lot more ball screen. But yeah, I think it’s kind of [Gard’s] team to see what he’s got.”
‘I don’t want to look like a moron’
He’s got depth. And young, green pieces to mold and steer. Trice (5.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg) logged valuable time last winter as a freshman deputizing for an injured Koenig, dropping 11 points on Northwestern and putting up 14 at Ohio State.
During an Australia-New Zealand junket over the summer, Gard recalled, he used five different starting lineups and came out of those tilts with five different leading scorers.
“None of them were Ethan Happ,” he said. “It wasn’t by design. That wasn’t the intent of it. It was just how it worked with the versatility and the diversity of the group.”
Seventh. Don’t we know better by now?
“It’s one of those deals where I don’t want to look like a moron when they finish second or third or first in this conference,” Hummel said. “Because they just always have.”