After answering questions for five minutes Wednesday morning, Mike Kelley had one of his own.
The former standout for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team wondered aloud how one of the current Badgers, freshman guard Brad Davison, is holding up as a struggling team reaches the stretch run of the 2017-18 season.
Kelley may not be able to relate to the physical pain that Davison, who is playing through an injured left shoulder, is going through. But Kelley lived through this type of a season 20 years ago, so he can feel Davison’s pain on an emotional level.
By now, it’s become clear the program’s remarkable run of NCAA tournament appearances, a streak that stands at 19 seasons, will end in March barring a miraculous turnaround. The Badgers (10-13, 3-7 Big Ten) have lost three games in a row and six of their past seven heading into a matchup with Northwestern (13-10, 4-6) tonight at the Kohl Center.
The most recent time UW missed the postseason, Kelley was a freshman point guard on a team that finished 12-19 overall and 3-13 in Big Ten play under Dick Bennett.
The Badgers had made it to the NCAA tournament the previous season, Bennett’s second at UW, before bowing out in the first round with a 71-58 loss to Texas.
One of the key returnees from that team, point guard Ty Calderwood, had complications from offseason knee injury and was forced to take a medical redshirt in 1997-98. That led to Kelley being thrust into a starting role as a rookie.
The roster took another major hit in mid-January when forward Sam Okey announced he was leaving the program. Okey, a McDonald’s All-American who had led the Badgers in scoring, rebounding and assists as a freshman two seasons earlier, had been suspended for two games early in his junior season and ended up only appearing in nine games.
Suddenly, UW was a very young and inexperienced team trying to survive in the Big Ten.
“A lot of times, we were just overmatched,” Kelley said. “You end up trying to plug holes with guys that ideally wouldn’t have to be playing as many minutes as they are. And then it wears you down.
“You’ve got the physical challenge of being a freshman and less than 12 months ago, you’re playing against some kid from the local high school and now you’re going up against a 6-6 kid who’s got you by 30 or 40 pounds as well. So that can be tough and it wears on your body and it also wears on your mind and you start second-guessing things. Those are all typical challenges that are just made harder when you’re a freshman or you’re playing on a young team.”
Sound familiar? These Badgers, young and relatively inexperienced to start with, lost sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice (foot) and freshman wing Kobe King (knee) 10 games into the season. King underwent season-ending knee surgery and, while Trice hasn’t been declared out for the season, it appears unlikely he’ll return.
What’s left is similar to what Kelley described from his first season at UW: A team trying to plug holes with players who typically wouldn’t be logging this many minutes.
Meanwhile, the Badgers’ two best players, Davison and junior center Ethan Happ, are handling a heavy workload. Both were held out of practice Tuesday after playing 37 and 38 minutes, respectively, the previous night during a 74-63 home loss to Nebraska.
The maddening part for the UW coaching staff and players is a feeling that, even with a depleted roster, they’ve let some games slip away because of self-inflicted damage.
“Look at some of the mistakes we’re making, it’s not like we’re incapable of winning some of these games,” said UW assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft, who played for the Badgers from 2005-09. “It’s really frustrating to even talk about it right now because there are some things that don’t have anything to do with talent. Guys are doing it hard and they’re trying, but they’re not putting their effort into the right places.
“There are mental mistakes here and there. And that comes with youth, but I don’t want to talk about our youth anymore.”
As for Kelley’s concerns about Davison and how the freshman and his teammates are doing from an emotional standpoint during a rough season, the message coming from the Badgers has mostly been a positive one.
“We’re trying to stay positive inside the locker room,” Davison said. “Obviously, everybody’s frustrated. No one likes losing. Wisconsin’s not about losing, and it’s not what we’re going to be about.”
Maybe the better question is how is UW coach Greg Gard holding up?
The answer falls in line with Davison’s response: Frustrated, yet unwavering in his belief the Badgers will learn from this season.
“He’s frustrated because a lot of little mistakes are the same that we need to be better at,” UW sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl said. “But for the most part, his job is like a teacher. You’ve got to teach your kids and help them grow.”
Gard has received words of support this week from two former UW coaches, Bo Ryan and Bennett.
Ryan and Gard spoke on the phone Tuesday night, while Bennett visited practice Sunday and even spoke to the team beforehand.
“It’s been good to hear both of them say, ‘Hey, we’ve been there before and you’ll be fine. Things will be fine in the long run,’ ” Gard said.
Bennett experienced something like this back when Kelley arrived in a freshman class that included Mark Vershaw, Andy Kowske, Maurice Linton and Charlie Wills. That group ended up being the core of a team that made a stunning run to the 2000 Final Four, but they experienced some hard times early in their careers.
After opening the Kohl Center with a 56-33 win over Northwestern on Jan. 17 of the 1997-98 season, the Badgers lost their final 12 games in Big Ten regular-season play.
Bennett knows what Gard is going through.
“It’s really a matter of kind of closing ranks a little bit because there’s a lot of outside input, and that can affect your commitment and confidence,” Bennett said. “Self-doubts are demons when you’re struggling to win games.
“The fact of the matter is, this was entirely predictable. They had four seniors last year, there’s been a wealth of talent the last number of years and this year was bound to slip in that regard. They’re young, they’re injured and they’re in a good league. So nothing surprises me. In fact, I think they’ve accounted well for themselves in spite of all of those factors and losing two really good players. … It’s been a perfect storm where everything kind of comes at them at once.”
When he looks back at how he handled the 1997-98 season, Bennett believes he was too emotional and that might have affected some of his younger players’ confidence. He watched Gard at practice Sunday and was impressed by his demeanor.
“Once you yield mentally, then the physical will follow. So they must not yield,” Bennett said. “My challenge when I faced that was to try to keep those young kids (confident). You can’t blow smoke and make them confident, but to keep them mindful of the need to try to improve every day and not lose confidence in who they were and what they could be.”
Bennett encouraged Gard to be innovative and creative the rest of the season with a rotation that includes three freshmen and two former walk-ons.
“When you don’t have a lot pieces,” Gard said, “it makes you really turn the box upside down and look at it every which way.”
Both Bennett and Kelley were quick to acknowledge there’s a huge difference between this season and the one they experienced 20 years ago.
Back then, UW was in the early stages of building the foundation of a program that has sustained success for nearly two decades. When the Badgers struggled in 1997-98, it was understandable.
Gard’s team doesn’t have that luxury. As Bennett put it, “these kids are carrying a heavy burden of tradition.”
That tradition — Gard referred to it as a “gold standard” — is why players such as Happ and Davison came to UW. They embrace the expectations that come along with playing for the Badgers, who have been to the Sweet Sixteen in six of the past seven seasons and made back-to-back trips to the Final Four during that stretch.
But it’s fair to wonder, as Bennett did, if “The Streak” is hanging over the Badgers this season and adding additional pressure on a team already dealing with enough as it is.
“I think that’s an advantage we had,” Kelley said. “These guys have to answer about what’s wrong and just a lot of doubting because people aren’t used to seeing this. Back then, people were more patient with us and understanding and recognized what was going on.
“That’s why I’m always shocked when I hear people ask me (about the state of the program) and are sort of fed up. I’m just like, ‘Wow, we’ve had 19 great years of basketball and this was bound to happen at some point.’ The circumstances, I think, totally explain why we’re seeing what we see and I’m proud of the group and the way they’ve continued to play. But expectations can be a tricky thing and a heavy burden, for sure.”
Kelley still remembers being on the bus as the Badgers were leaving the United Center in Chicago after UW’s 1997-98 season ended with a 66-61 loss to Illinois in the Big Ten tournament. The following season, the Badgers bounced back to win 22 games and advance to the NCAA tournament, the starting point of an extraordinary run that likely will end at 19 seasons.
His advice for Davison and his teammates is simple.
“It,” Kelley said, “is going to get better.”