Wisconsin Basketball: Gard-ed offense dooms season

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Head coach Greg Gard of the Wisconsin Badgers looks on against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 16, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Head coach Greg Gard of the Wisconsin Badgers looks on against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 16, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Having completed his fourth season, coach Greg Gard has put his stamp on the Wisconsin basketball program and he’s quickly leading it into obscurity.

In the nine years prior to Greg Gard taking over the Wisconsin Badgers basketball program, their winning percentage was an impressive .763.  Under Gard’s leadership, that number has tumbled to .635. The Badgers have failed to finish the season ranked in the AP top 20 in each of Gard’s four seasons, twice failing to finish ranked at all. Prior to this, the Badgers finished the season ranked inside the AP top 20 in six consecutive seasons and 10 of the previous 12.

This fallout is a direct result of a combination of Gard’s inability to recruit, failure to develop players, and his outdated, decrepit offense that continually undermines the best efforts of his players.

According to ESPN, from 2010 – 2015, the Badgers recruited 14 players who were graded as a three-star player of higher. This included six players who were four-star recruits and one five-star recruit.  And in each of these seasons they secured at least one three-star player and in five of the six seasons, they signed at least one four-star player.

In Gard’s four seasons he has had only one class (2017) where he signed a recruit with at least three stars. In his other three seasons (barring something unexpected prior to next season) he will have failed to recruit and sign a single noteworthy player. After back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2014 and 2015, the program had momentum in recruiting. Gard failed to take advantage and has turned Madison into a recruiting wasteland.

Worse, he has failed to develop the players he does have. Brevin Pritzl came to Madison in 2015 as a sharpshooting four-star recruit.  Thus far, he has posted a paltry average of 5.4 points per game. He led the team this year hitting .410 of his shots beyond the arc. A good coach would have schemed ways to generate more shooting opportunities for him.  Instead, Pritzl remained in obscurity with only 2.3 three-point shot attempts per game.

Charlie Thomas was in Pritzl’s class and entered the program as a three-star recruit. His length, versatility, and all-around utility skills should have found a consistent contributing role with the team. Instead, he was a complete non-factor during his career.

Alex Illikainen was the big catch from the 2015 class. He was a four-star recruit who had scholarship offers from 16 schools. As a forward with three-point shooting ability, he should have been an ideal fit into the program.  Instead, he never started a single game in his career and finally left the program with a year of eligibility remaining.

The most compelling evidence of Gard’s failure to develop talent is seen in the team’s best player, Ethan Happ. His scoring plateaued the last two years, his shooting percentage dropped, his steals per game were nearly half what they were from his sophomore season, and his free throw percentage completely bottomed out.

A closer look reveals he drastically changed the offense Bo Ryan successfully developed.  Gard has completely ruined an otherwise effective, albeit still-too-slow, offensive scheme.  He clearly had no intentions of continuing with the same effective philosophy on offense.  The stench of his scheme has brought the entire program to a complete halt.

More specifically he has eschewed the program’s most potent weapon, the three-point shot.  From 2011-2015 the Badgers hoisted three-pointers at a blistering pace ranking near the top of the nation in three-point attempts.

2015: 22nd
2014: 15th
2013: 13th
2012: 17th
2011: 30th

In Gard’s first season, the team immediately stopped utilizing the three-point shot, ranking 182nd.  The bounced back in 2017 to rank 69th.  However, in the last two years, Gard has completely abandoned the three-point shot ranking 256th and 280th.

Ranking 280th this season was especially curious because they converted .366 of their three-point attempts which was slightly better than their 2015 Final Four team which was successful on .365 of their shots beyond the arc.  Their .366 success rate this year was comparable to the six seasons prior to Gard’s takeover.

2015: .365
2014: .376
2013: .330
2012: .368
2011: .374
2010: .357

Launching tons of three-pointers would have opened up more spacing and allowed Ethan Happ to be more effective.  Gard refused.  A more up-tempo offense would have created better shot opportunities. Instead, Gard preferred to have the team grind themselves into difficult and crowded shots competing against both their opponent and the shot clock.

With an outdated offense and a lack of incoming talent, the program is about to implode.  Once it does, it becomes very difficult to come back.  Just ask programs like Illinois and Wake Forest.  However, this offseason the Badgers have a chance to save the program before it falls off the cliff.  Several hot names with innovative systems will readily be available and looking for a promotion.

Buffalo’s Nate Oats is a great starting point.  His team launches three-pointers at a rate that would make Gard dizzy.  This year Buffalo shot the ninth most three-pointers and last year the team ranked 15th in the nation.  Their offense was effective scoring 1.29 points per shot attempt this year and 1.31 a year ago.  This was substantially better than Gard’s teams which scored only 1.21 and 1.25 points per shot attempt the last two years.

Wofford’s Mike Young is also getting some well-deserved buzz.  This year, he
led the team to 30 wins thanks to a potent offense.  His team ranked 42nd in three-point attempts a year ago and boosted that total to 20th this year.  This translated into a highly efficient offense scoring 1.35 and 1.36 points per shot attempt the last two years.  Per Kenpom.com, the team ranked as the 11th best offense in the nation.

Finally, Murray State’s Matt McMahon has earned a bigger coaching opportunity as well.  The team’s success isn’t all about sophomore sensation Ja Morant.  Unlike Young and Oates, McMahon’s system does not depend on an assault of three-point attempts.  Instead, he relies on pushing the pace to create easy shots by taking advantage of the opposition’s defense before they can get set.  He often uses a 15-second shot clock in practice to ensure his players are pushing the tempo at an electric pace.  The results cannot be ignored. Over the last two years, the team has scored a scintillating 1.37 and 1.40 points per shot attempt.  Pushing the pace has allowed them to convert their 2-point shots at an elite level (.553 in 2018 and .582 in 2019).  This dwarfs Gard’s miserable offense which has only converted their 2-point shots at a meager rate of .498 and .512 the last two seasons.

Next. Scary times ahead for Wisconsin Basketball. dark

The Wisconsin Badgers rely on quality recruiting and steady player development.  Gard has done neither.  He has taken a successful program and promptly ran it into the ground.  It will only get worse.  Change is rarely comfortable or easy.  But when faced with the obvious, it is necessary.  It’s time to move forward.