Returning a veteran-laden roster and not losing any players off last year’s rotation, the Badgers are picked by many as a Big Ten favorite and have the pieces to return to the Final Four for the third time in four years.
Gard knows it, too, which is why he’s not sticking his head in the sand.
“You embrace it and you understand it,” Gard said during his season-opening press conference Monday. “I don’t hide from it. We’ve talked about it as a team, but they understand that it will be a step-by-step process.”
In his first preseason as head coach, Gard has already installed some minor tweaks. UW did its preseason running on campus at Bascom Hill instead of Elver Park on the city’s southwest side and cut down on the number of times it did the conditioning. Everything else pretty much follows his history.
During the offseason, Gard found nearly every single practice plan from the mid-1990s during his first year coaching at Platteville to present day. From having notes scratched out on notecards or stacked in binders, Gard combined everything to come up with a practice plan for the next four weeks, starting with the base skill set the program worked on during limited contact periods over the summer and progress into more intricate tasks.
It is part of the reason why Wisconsin has yet to do any 5-on-5 work through two practices. Monday’s day three practice is all about ball screen defense and close outs.
The N.C.A.A. allows schools to practice 30 times in the 42 days leading up to the season opener, which for the Badgers is Nov.11 at home against Central Arkansas. Those 30 days also include the Red-White scrimmage Oct. 23, an exhibition game against UW-Platteville Oct.30 and a closed scrimmage.
“They’ve definitely done the right things up to this point in terms of preparation,” Gard said. “Now as we go through the fall, it will be one day at a time, trying to take a step forward as we go deeper into practice and then prepare for what comes later this month.”
The Badgers return their entire starting rotation from a season ago, including four seniors (guards Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter, forwards Vitto Brown and Nigel Hayes) and the 2016 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ethan Happ.
In addition to returning junior guard Jordan Hill, junior forward Aaron Moesch and sophomore forwards Alex Illikainen, Khalil Iverson and Charlie Thomas, Wisconsin will have sophomore forward Andy Van Vliet and redshirt freshman guard Brevin Pritzl entering their second year in the program.
How much Pritzl will contribute is still up in the air after missing all of last season after breaking his foot in August and re-breaking it early in the nonconference schedule (he was given a medical redshirt), but Van Vliet brings height and perimeter shooting to a team that shot 34.9 percent from 3-point range last year.
“In Andy’s case, I think you’re looking at how he can adjust to the physicality of the game and how he can become more consistent now that he’s into year two,” Gard said. “…I think Andy has really practiced well in the two days so far, but obviously it’s early.”
Van Vliet was ruled ineligible by the N.C.A.A. last season, forcing him to sit out last season and lose a year of eligibility over a question regarding his eligibility time clock. Wisconsin lost its appear but Gard said it’s possible the topic could be revisited after Van Vliet’s senior season.
Taking over a 7-5 team when head coach Bo Ryan stepped down, Gard led Wisconsin to a 15-8 record that included a top-four finish in the Big Ten for a 15th consecutive season and a third straight trip to the Sweet 16.
So while he takes a diligent approach from a preparation standpoint, Gard knows that the team chemistry is already a few steps ahead.
“That team grew tighter,” Gard said. “For as much as they improved on the court, I saw tenfold that in the locker room with chemistry and that culture really grew. I think the thing you keep in mind is you understand why things didn’t go well last year and how we grew and trusted the process along the way and continued to get better. We have to do the same thing. We can’t bypass any of those steps along the way. We have to check every box.”