WASHINGTON – There’s no official Big Ten preseason poll any more but it’s not hard to figure out which team is the favorite.
With three preseason All-Big Ten selections on a roster that returns 99.8 percent of the minutes and 99.7 percent of the scoring from a Sweet 16 team, Wisconsin knows it will be the targeted group when conference play starts in late December.
They are expectations that come with the territory.
“Wisconsin has always had high expectations for quite a while now, and our players are used to that,” head coach Greg Gard said, representing the Badgers for the first time at the conference’s media day Thursday. “They're used to that culture and what the expectations are. The expectations on the outside will never surpass what's on the inside and what those guys have in that locker room and what they expect and what they want to accomplish.”
“It's a great mark not only on our current players that are returning,” he added, “but also the reputation that our program has developed within the league and nationally.”
Sitting around Gard at the Marriott Wardman Park were three reasons why Wisconsin has such a glossy status and are an early pick to make a third Final Four in four seasons. Senior Nigel Hayes was named the conference’s preseason player of the year on Wednesday, senior guard Bronson Koenig – another preseason all-conference pick - enters his third season running the point and senior Zak Showalter filled the gritty hustle role in his first full-time starting role.
“It is nice having guys back that know their role and have gotten comfortable playing the game of college basketball,” Showalter said. “Last year was kind of eye opening – we had a lot of new guys thrown into a new starting lineup and we didn't start the season the way we wanted to. We are more confident and more comfortable this year and that is really going to help us.”
“This is the deepest team we've had since I've been here,” Koenig added. “It is great having almost everyone from last year's team back, because everyone knows what they have to do to be successful.”
Not only does Wisconsin have reserves Jordan Hill, Alex Illikainen, Khalil Iverson, Aaron Moesch and Charlie Thomas returning with experience, the Badgers can incorporate sophomore forward Andy Van Vliet’s outside game, something Hayes said will help the roster.
“He is a 7-foot shooter, he'll put the ball on the ground, terrific passer and create mismatches,” Hayes said. “He also has the length to help on defense.”
“The biggest carryover from last year is playing with confidence,” he continued. “We showed last year we could play at a high level, and all the guys have improved and have confidence in what they have accomplished.”
The accomplishment came from turning a 9-9 start, not to mention a 1-4 record in the Big Ten, to a team that went 22-13 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten. And the Badgers did it by re-introducing the swing offense.
When Gard replaced Bo Ryan in mid-December, the first-time head coach wanted to put his veterans in a position of strength and try to alleviate some of the pressures off a rotation that had six sophomores or freshmen. The swing – which requires absolute spacing and movement – was the answer.
It was a system that Gard had coached in for nearly 25 years under Ryan but something the program has gone away from the previous two seasons due to the roster’s high-caliber talent. After some initial bumps in the road, the system allowed the players to develop their own individual talents within the framework. More importantly it put everyone on the same page.
“We didn't really successfully run an offense (under Ryan),” Koenig recalled. “All too often it broke down to someone setting a ball screen, and I would get doubled. That led to a lot of problems. Changing back to the swing was a big change for me as the point guard, but it helped everyone get on the same page, and we played better.”
The only thing Gard hardly touched was the defense. Traditionally one of the best defensive teams in the country, Gard kept the same rules and principles and only fine-tuned some things as the season progressed. As a result, Wisconsin lead the Big Ten in scoring defense (63.8 ppg) and turnover percentage, having held a total of 10 teams to their season-low point total.
“Our defense works,” Showalter said. “It is proven to work. We just needed to become more consistent individually and then we were able to grow as a team.”
“People always talk about synergy on offense, and working together, but I think synergy defensively is just as important,” Gard added. “It takes time for everyone to jell together and that cohesion to take place. We were constantly trying to emphasize how important the little things were. Just like fundamentals are important on the offensive end, they are important on the defensive end and we tried to build on that same model throughout the year.”
When asked if the summer program had changed under Gard, Showalter said that outside of changing from the Elver Park Hill to Bascom Hill for conditioning runs, almost the whole off-season program had remained the same.
That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise considering Gard was Ryan’s right-hand man for over two decades. But having made a tangible impact in such a short time, and during the season nonetheless, Gard is making sure Wisconsin checks every box during its preseason process.
“Coach Gard is really a student of the game and noticed somethings from game film that we were deficient upon,” Showalter said. “(He) really hammered them home to work on over the summer.”