Badgers fans endured a tough 2017-18 season, with the red and white missing the tournament for the first time in 20 years. That certainly cast a long shadow of doubt over Coach Greg Gard and the program he had inherited from Bo Ryan, with many fans (including myself) wondering if the season was not just an off year, but rather a sign of a prolonged downfall yet to come for one of the most consistent college basketball programs in the country.
However, through six games in 2018, Gard and Co. have put those worries to rest. Badgers Basketball is back.
The first sign of the program’s resurgence was their gutsy 77-68 road victory over Xavier. Led by the trio of Ethan Happ, D’Mitrik Trice, and Brad Davison that scored 71 of the team’s 77 points, the Badgers proved that they now have the ability and grit to win those close, tough road games that they frequently lost in the final minutes last year.
The Badgers’ run to the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament further solidified the notion that this team is back. Wisconsin last year failed to win games when faced with adversity, seemingly living and dying off their success from behind the arc, with no other modus operandi to turn to. However, this year’s Badgers knocked off a stingy Stanford team by 16 points while shooting only 1-8 from three-point land, led instead by an enveloping defensive performance which saw them block 11 shots and force 12 turnovers. The next game was a completely different story, as they beat an explosive Oklahoma team by 20 points, this time shooting 14-22 (63.6%) from behind the arc en route to an uber-efficient offensive display.
In the championship game against #4 Virginia, the Badgers trailed by 13 points entering halftime, managing to put up only 16 points of their own in the first half against the vaunted Virginia defense. Things easily could have gotten out of hand in the second half as they often did last season – but the Badgers battled back. Bringing the game to within five points, the Badgers never felt out of it until the final minute, and were 3 or 4 plays away from this game coming down to whichever team had the ball for the final shot. Ethan Happ was utterly dominant, racking up 22 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 blocks. The supporting cast ultimately did not provide enough help to knock off a Virginia team that is in the national title conversation. Regardless, this week in the Bahamas showed that these Badgers are for real, and have a squad capable of competing with top programs.
Maybe most importantly, the Virginia loss helped Coach Gard discover his rotation for big-time games. After Friday’s game, I assume that he will stick with a main rotation of seven players against top notch competition like Virginia, with that rotation being: starters Brad Davison, Ethan Happ, Khalil Iverson, Nate Reuvers, and D’Mitrik Trice; and bench players Kobe King and Aleem Ford. Guards Trevor Anderson and Brevin Pritzl looked outmatched against Virginia’s athleticism and scheme, while Kobe King and a (soon-to-be-healthy) Aleem Ford matched up well and caused no drop-off in performance. Charlie Thomas also looked somewhat uncomfortable on the floor, and likely will only see extended time in high-profile matchups if one of the two starting bigs (Happ, Reuvers) gets into early foul trouble. Nonetheless, that aforementioned 7-man rotation is very solid, and is a great core for Gard to work with.
Last year’s Badgers had the large disadvantage of having only Ethan Happ to lean on for offense. Thus far in 2018, it looks like Happ has a more than capable second fiddle in redshirt sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice. Trice gives the Badgers a go-to scorer when Happ is on the bench, and has proven that he could even be the number one option at times when Happ is on the floor. When Trice gets hot, he is automatic, and gives the Badgers a lethal three-point shooting option.
The Badgers may not have the objective talent of an elite program. They don’t have the five-star recruits, or the accomplished grad transfers, or even the flashy jerseys and celebrity bandwagoners. However, what enables them to compete with those teams on the floor is their disciplined offensive approach, lockdown defense, and a whole lot of grit. We have seen all three on display thus far, and if they stick to it, merely making the tournament would not be an adequate ceiling for this team. Rather, a prolonged tournament run will be. These Badgers have the chance to make some fun memories down the stretch, and should get the Kohl Center rocking once again.