PHOENIX – As he headed through one of the many hallways littered with college basketball head coaches this week, North Dakota head coach Brian Jones walked past Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard and Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams in an intense conversation.
From an eavesdropping distance, Jones said the conversation wasn’t about the Badgers and Hokies first round match-up two weeks ago. Like for many fans in the state of Wisconsin, it was centered on how the final defensive play of Wisconsin’s season ended.
“Buzz was picking his brain about what could he have done differently,” Jones said. “Both of them agreed, and I agree, I don’t know what they could have done differently.”
A week later, Florida Chris Chiozza’s 3-point shot that ended Wisconsin basketball 2016-17 season with a stinging 84-83 overtime defeat is still in the conversation as coaches convene for the National Association of Basketball Coaches annual convention and tomorrow’s national semifinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. For a Badgers fan base that has seen its team lose its last four N.C.A.A. tournament games by a combined 12 points, including two by a single point, it’s brought out the second guessing.
Should Wisconsin have used its last timeout to set a defense that looked out of sorts? Perhaps senior Nigel Hayes should have missed the second free throw to force Florida to go into scramble mode, or that Hayes should have waited longer to attack the basket before getting fouled?
There’s also fans saying Wisconsin should have guarded the inbounding player or fouled after Chiozza zipped past the defense.
To Gard’s coaching colleagues, however, Wisconsin’s second-year head coach did exactly what they would have done in that situation.
“I guarantee you one of the guys missed a defensive assignment,” Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said. “It wasn’t anything what coach told him to do. They were trying to stay in front and I guarantee you, like we do, we receive the blame. That’s rightfully so. We’re responsible, but you know Wisconsin was supposed to stay in front of Chiozza or do a certain thing and it didn’t happen.”
For starters, coaches agree that missing the free throw in Wisconsin’s situation opens up a can of worms. The Gators would only need two points to win the game and a foul call (UW was whistled for a season-high 26 fouls) put Wisconsin in the helpless situation of watching Florida attempt two free throws to potentially win the game.
There’s also the possibility that the intentional missed free throw doesn’t draw iron, giving Florida – which was out of timeouts – another path to victory.
Davis – who’s Blue Raiders knocked off No.2 Michigan State and No.5 Minnesota in the opening round of the last two tournaments – also debunked the Badgers guarding the inbounding player, saying it was unlikely Florida (or any team) would throw the ball deep with plenty of time on the clock to get down the floor. In that situation, it’s more advantageous to get the ball to someone on a higher-percentage pass.
“Wisconsin is such a good defensive team, such a good transition defensive team, and I know that they felt they will be able to contain him,” Davis said. “Chiozza just had a burst and got by them. I would have done the same the thing. I think you try to make the free throw and guard, and he still had to make an unbelievable shot to win the game.”
The breakdown occurred when Hayes was unable to make Chiozza alter his direction, allowing him a clear lane to the frontcourt. Freshman D’Mitrik Trice – who Gard said was in the game because Bronson Koenig was suffering cramps – was also unable to help pin Chiozza on the base line or have him alter course.
When brought up that some fans wanted Wisconsin to foul Chiozza once he got by the defense to prevent an open look, coaches quickly debunked that line of thinking.
“Any time you are in a late game situation, (it’s) a lot of luck and players stepping up or not stepping up,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “That shot that he hit was incredible. Defensively they might have been able to stay in front of him a little longer, but at that point you don’t want to foul the guy. In a lot of those late game situations, players make plays to win games, and sometimes they are a little luckier than more skill.
“If you are Wisconsin, sometimes you just have give credit to the other time for making an unbelievable play.”
In the last week, Gard admitted he’s replayed the ending sequence countless times to diagnosis the problems. It’s the same thing he did last season when Wisconsin struggled down the stretch in a loss to Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 and two years before in the loss to Kentucky in the national semifinals.
“No one second guesses himself more than the coach,” said Memphis head coach Tubby Smith, who knows Gard from Smith’s tenure at Minnesota. “When something happens you’re watching film, you’re evaluating if I would have done this or done this. That’s why you improve. The positives and negative thinking. You remember what happens so you don’t make that mistake again and every situation is different.”
The make-up of Wisconsin will be entirely different next season, signaling some to label last Friday as the end of an era in Badgers basketball. New Illinois coach Brad Underwood doesn’t see it that way, especially since he got an up-close look at the Badgers in November at the Maui Invitational during his previous head coach job at Oklahoma State.
“There’s been no drop off,” Underwood said. “That program has stayed so consistent for so long. That’s really impressive. That program has been consistent as anyone in the country.”
Added Iowa coach Fran McCaffery: “They never seem to be hurt by graduation. They just plug new guys in. They have a system. They play a certain way.”
According to Jones, the one constant in all that success for Wisconsin is having Gard on the bench.
“He’s been trained in the right way within that system, within that program, that he’s done a great job,” Jones said. “They are one of the programs, just when you think they are going to take a step back, they don’t.”