PHOENIX – In the immediate aftermath of his second year as a head coach coming to an end, Greg Gard admitted he replayed the final possession of Wisconsin’s 84-83 overtime loss to Florida “10 thousand” times in his mind to the point that it kept him awake at night.
A week later, a refreshed and relaxed Gard has moved past disbelief and acceptance on the stages of grief, but he’s still unplugging from the sudden shock of a season ending before diving back and moving on to 2017-18 preparation.
“I’m sleeping better than the first few nights,” he jokes. “It was not too easy to stomach that immediately after and the next couple days. But as you step back and look at it from a broader perspective, you start to appreciate what kind of season we had, what we had to overcome and how they had to grow through the season.”
In relaxation mode to watch today’s national semifinals with his son, Isaac, before heading back to Madison Monday afternoon, Gard sat down in an exclusive interview with BadgerNation at the National Association of Basketball Coaches conference to talk about some of his young players on his roster, incoming recruits, adding a graduate transfer, the upcoming foreign trip and more.
BN: Alex Illikainen, Charles Thomas and Andy Van Vliet have all said they need to do much more moving into next season when their roles will be expanded. Needing depth at that position to take pressure off Ethan Happ, where’s the growth you want to see from them as the head coach?
Gard: What you see there is normal progression of young big guys. You look back over the history of the guys we’ve had in the program and very few have played as freshmen. Charlie and Alex got to play as freshmen. Now you are going through another step as a sophomore where maybe it didn’t come as easy as everyone expected it to come. I view it as a growing process, specifically of Charlie and Alex. Andy hasn’t been able to be in a position physically yet to contribute. He’s got to get stronger, bigger and maximize his time in the weight room and maximize his offseason to physically be in a position to fight for minutes next year.
I will be interested to see how they grow and develop. Just looking at the development that a Jared Berggren made from a sophomore to a junior. That’s about the time where we see the big guys specifically take that next step forward. I’m not saying any of those guys are Frank Kaminsky, because you are talking about a national player of the year, but Frank as a sophomore was, ‘well, he might be OK.’ He showed a little flash in the Big Ten tournament that year, but it really took until his junior year to really start to come out of his shell and come into his own. Part of that was the opportunities he had grew immensely because Jared had graduated.
I think they will grow because they got a little taste of it, they understand that they have to improve in some areas and that their opportunities will grow as time goes on. Next year has me excited about those guys. There’s lot of potential there. Obviously another word for potential is we haven’t done anything yet, but just watching and filing things I saw throughout the year for a variety of guys, we’ll have some growing pains, but the potential is there to be really competitive as we go forward into the latter half of next season.
BN: Although you just completed your second year as a head coach, you’ve been around this program for over a decade. How hard is it for a true freshmen – referring to Brad Davison, Kobe King and Nathan Reuvers coming in – to step in and play major minutes right away?
Gard: You look at them physically and ask who could be ready to go physically. I think Brad and Kobe because of the positions they play in the backcourt, it’s easier to play earlier as a guard because the physical part of the game doesn’t come into play as much on a possession-by-possession basis as it does in the post. Nate will have to maximize his time here in the summer in the weight room and into next fall. We’ll see where that leads with all three of them.
I don’t want to put expectations or limitations out there for them. They get here in June, we’ll have practices then, we’ll have practices leading into the foreign tour and five games overseas. What they have in front of them are opportunities, opportunities every day to get better, show the staff what they are ready for and maybe show the staff they aren’t quite ready for that moment. I’m not writing any of the three off, but I don’t want to be in position where I project where they could be. I don’t know how they’ll respond to the everyday grind of being a college athlete. It’s different.
I think physically Brad and Kobe will be ready and we’ll see how Nate progresses. He’s your typical big guy coming in, but Nate’s skill set allows him to do some things much like a Jon Leuer did in his career when maybe he wasn’t ready to bang in the paint as much. He had a lot of components to his game that (a lack of strength) can be worked around. We’ll see how everything pieces together.
BN: With an open scholarship available, are you and your staff pursuing adding a graduate transfer?
Gard: We are already navigating through it. We have talked to some people and are surfing the landscape so to speak. Whether fifth-year transfer or just a normal transfer, you want to make sure it’s the right fit. That’s one thing I always knew was important but probably put more of a premium on culture and cohesiveness and chemistry in the locker room. You want to make sure if you are adding someone like that, typically we’ve always added freshmen who had to grow their way through that culture and figure out what it’s about early. When it’s a transfer situation, you have an immediate plugin that better be on the same page to understand what we’re about or it won’t be a good fit.
Obviously we’re looking at things positionally to be able to help us the right way if it’s a fifth year guy, but we’re always looking at the transfer market to see if it’s a right fit. I’m also cognizant of what 2018 brings, too, and how we have to delegate scholarships moving forward.
BN: After travelling to Italy and Canada previously on foreign trips, what made you decide to go to Australia and New Zealand this summer?
Gard: It was less expensive than Italy and also the safety of the travel was looked at with what was going on in Europe at that point in time when we were looking at options. We’ll be working with (former Badgers forward) Kirk Penney. He’ll be over there. We’ll probably have to play against him, which will be great. He’ll probably be coaching and playing the team at the same time, but that kind of got the discussions started. I was at a golf event with Kirk last spring and we started talking about the options of coming out there. Once we put all the options out on the table, that’s the one that looked the most appropriate for what we wanted to accomplish.
All of the trips have been very beneficial. You either want to take a trip when you have an all-veteran team coming back like we had in 2007 with that group or with a bunch of young guys like we did in 2013. We only had Ben Brust as the only senior that year. Not only will this be a great experience for the three freshmen, but also for those other guys to give us a jump start going down the road.
BN: Coming full circle, you’ve had a veteran team the last two years, so are you excited for the opportunity to coach a team that will be young and need a lot of teaching?
Gard: Expectations and approaches don’t change for us. Our drills aren’t going to change because we don’t have four seniors. Our expectations of how players are held accountable and what they expect of each other don’t change. I think we’ve got good young talent in the program, but we also have some guys ready to step into a leadership role and are excited about it. That was talked about during the year about next. Not just our seniors Aaron Moesch and Jordan Hill, but even guys behind that are excited to step into a leadership role. I’ve said all along, you don’t have to be a senior to be a leader. You can help in other ways. I think we have some guys who are really looking forward and are very capable of being very good leaders for us.