Wisconsin’s men’s basketball program went through the type of tumultuous week that threatened to derail the season by putting its head coach and veteran leader under fire.
Second-leading scorer Kobe King’s abrupt decision last week to transfer shocked the team and fan base. A double blow came when much maligned guard Brad Davison was slapped with a one-game suspension by the Big Ten Conference last week for an unsportsmanlike play vs. Iowa.
Criticism toward Badgers coach Greg Gard, especially over King leaving, got so loud that Wisconsin’s players stayed off social media.
“I hadn’t paid too much attention of what was being said,” said freshman forward Tyler Wahl, a Lakeville native. “I’m sure there hasn’t been nice things. But that’s our leader, and we all got behind him. That’s our guy, so we went out and battled for him.”
Entering Wednesday’s border battle against the Gophers (11-10, 5-6 Big Ten), the Badgers (13-9, 6-5) have shown they could move on without King. Wisconsin surprised the rest of the Big Ten with an upset over No. 14 Michigan State on Saturday.
“In terms of what we’ve gone through here,” Gard said last week, “we’ve got a locker room full of guys who are united, that are excited about the opportunity.”
Wahl said there was a “little bit extra” behind the Badgers rallying shorthanded to upset Michigan State 64-63 at home Saturday. Beyond how motivated they are to play their best for Gard, they’ve got a chip on their shoulder for how Davison has been viewed, too.
A junior guard from Maple Grove, Davison was cheering on the bench after apologizing to the team for not being able to play. It was a double whammy for the team after losing King, who averaged 10 points per game but didn’t feel like he fit with Gard anymore.
“We were all sad when we got the news [with King], but we said we have goals we still want to accomplish,” said Wahl, who replaced King in the starting lineup vs. Iowa. “Brad’s just a great person. He’s going to take the blame for whatever he’s done. Even if it’s not necessarily fair or anything.”
Fair or not, Davison has been cast as a villain in college basketball for a few controversial incidents. In a game against Marquette last season, Davison received a flagrant 1 foul after making contact with Marquette’s Joey Hauser below the waist.
The Gophers requested that the Big Ten review video last February of Davison dangerously sticking out his left leg under the basket, causing Jordan Murphy to stumble awkwardly as he grabbed a rebound at Williams Arena.
But Davison had faced no further discipline until the Iowa incident resulted in Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren taking action.
Warren said in his statement that a “pattern of similar behavior” played into Davison’s suspension. Davison was caught on video hitting Iowa’s Connor McCaffery in the groin area while fighting through a screen in last week’s loss in Iowa City. Gard agreed that the play deserved the flagrant 1 foul call, but he was not in favor of the play being interpreted as malicious.
“I’ve known Brad Davison since he was in the eighth grade,” Gard told reporters. “I will vouch for his character until the day I die.”
For the past three seasons, Davison has been known as one of the toughest players in the Big Ten. He’s played despite injuries, including a separated shoulder during his All-Big Ten freshman season in 2017-18. He overcame consistency issues this season to lead his team back into NCAA tournament contention, including with a late defensive play and three-pointer in a 56-54 home victory vs. then-No. 17 Maryland.
“I’m definitely looking forward to getting back out there and competing with my team,” Davison said after the Michigan State game.
Davison’s return to the court Wednesday at the Barn likely will be met with a less-than-welcoming reception from Gophers fans. The border battle became more intense with Wisconsin’s recruiting success in Minnesota, and now the Badgers will start three locals, including leading scorer and junior center Nate Reuvers and Wahl, who played with Reuvers at Lakeville North.