Greg Gard is the least experienced head coach in the Big Ten.
But nobody knows the Wisconsin men’s basketball program better than the man who spent 23 years as an assistant under Bo Ryan, including 15 years with the Badgers.
When Ryan retired 12 games into last season, Gard took over as interim coach facing a lot of pressure to turn the season around and prove he should be the long-term leader of the program.
Sometimes there is a coach-in-waiting process. But this wasn’t it.
“I’ve never had more than a one-year contract in my entire career, so for me it’s never been about the pressure,” Gard said then.
Wisconsin’s players respected Gard. So did athletic director Barry Alvarez. But in mid-January 2016, the Badgers had a 9-9 record, which included a 1-4 start to the Big Ten after three straight losses.
Something was wrong. And it didn’t look good for Gard’s chances to stick around after the season. But a year later, Gard is Wisconsin’s full-time coach and enters Saturday’s game at Minnesota with a 15-3 record and 4-1 in the Big Ten — arguably the league’s top team.
“I notice how our guys approach it,” Gard said this week. “They don’t waver. There’s not a lot of up and down. They approach every day consistently, and in large part that’s the mind-set that’s been here for a long time.”
It helps to have four senior starters in Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter. They were veterans last year, too, though. But they needed time to adjust to their roles and unexpected transition from Ryan to Gard.
“We had a lot of guys who had what it takes and knew what it was like to play in those big games,” Showalter said. “We just had to bring our games together and play with each other. We really figured out how to do that more at the end of last year.”
Showalter, a former walk-on turned starter last year, has a closer relationship with Gard than his fellow seniors. He spent his first two seasons playing on the scout team. Gard was the scout team’s coach.
“I was kind of listening to him from Day 1,” Showalter said. “I saw him trying to scheme plays against the top team. I’ve been working with him a long time, so it’s cool to see both of us grow in our roles.”
Gard, who was officially hired last March, made a big splash in landing a 2017 recruiting class that is arguably the program’s best ever. Kobe King and Minnesotans Nathan Reuvers and Brad Davison are all four-star prospects.
Winning a Big Ten title in his first full season would be an even bigger statement.
The first bit of adversity in league play came in an 11-point loss at Purdue. But the Badgers responded with consecutive home victories over Ohio State and Michigan.
The Wolverines used a 15-1 run to lead by eight points in the second half Tuesday. The Wisconsin team that started the Big Ten season with Gard as head coach last year probably would have folded.
Wisconsin lost four home games in December and January last season. But the Badgers came back to beat the Wolverines on Tuesday, resembling the group that won 11 of its last 13 Big Ten games last season and eventually went to the Sweet 16.
There always will be glimpses of Ryan’s style with these Badgers, but this is definitely Gard’s program now.
Player to watch: Johnathan Motley, F, Baylor
The 6-foot-10 junior had a notable last game of 32 points and 20 rebounds in Tuesday’s 74-64 win against Texas. Motley had quietly been the top player on a Bears team that got up to No. 1 in the nation last week. We’ll see what his encore performance will be in a big game Saturday vs. TCU.
Game of the weekend
No. 14 Arizona at No. 3 UCLA, 3 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 4: The Bruins are the favorite to win the Pac-12 title, but they’ve already lost one league game on a last-second shot against Oregon. The Wildcats are undefeated and can make a strong case to be a league title contender if they pull off the upset Saturday in Westwood.
We’re privileged to watch many coaching legends, such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. Williams (above) reached the 800-victory mark this week. What made it cooler is Michael Jordan gave him a pair of signed Air Jordans inside a custom-made oak box laser-engraved with the No. 800.
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
Marcus Fuller’s rankings, with five teams to watch:
1. Wisconsin (15-3, 4-1 Big Ten)
2. Maryland (17-2, 5-1)
Moving up: The Terrapins got back into the rankings this week at No. 25, but they didn’t have a letdown with an impressive 84-76 win at Iowa. They’re 9-0 when Melo Trimble (above) scores 20 points or more.
3. Purdue (15-4, 4-2)
Big sixth-man: Purdue’s 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas has come off the bench the last four games since the overtime 91-82 loss at home to Minnesota. He’s averaging 14 points and 6.8 rebounds in that stretch.
4. Michigan State (12-7, 4-2)
5. Gophers (15-4, 3-3)
6. Northwestern (15-4, 4-2)
Wide margin: Northwestern ranks second in Big Ten games in scoring margin (plus-8.2), not far behind Wisconsin (plus-8.6). The Wildcats clobbered Iowa by 35 points in their last game.
7. Indiana (13-6, 3-3)
Injury blow: The Hoosiers, who play Michigan State Saturday, will be without sophomore standout OG Anunoby for the rest of the season after he injured his right knee in a 78-75 win vs. Penn State Wednesday.
8. Illinois (12-7, 2-4)
9. Michigan (12-7, 2-4)
10. Penn State (11-8, 3-3)
11. Iowa (11-9, 3-4)
12. Ohio State (12-7, 2-4)
Momentum swing: Ohio State’s season seemed doomed after an 0-4 Big Ten start. But the Buckeyes bounced back with their first two wins in conference play. They beat Michigan State and Nebraska.
13. Nebraska (9-9, 3-3)
14. Rutgers (11-8, 0-6)
Marcus Fuller covers college basketball for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Marcus_R_Fuller. Blog: startribune.com/gophers