NEW YORK — As University of Wisconsin men’s basketball players, coaches and support staff exchanged hugs in the locker room Friday afternoon, multiple people delivered the same three-word message to the young man who appeared to be taking the loss the hardest.
Three more years.
But Brad Davison wasn’t ready for that sentiment just yet. After the Badgers’ season ended with a 63-60 loss to Michigan State in a Big Ten Conference tournament quarterfinal at Madison Square Garden, the last thing the freshman guard wanted to do was focus on his bright future.
Davison was more concerned with the fact seniors Aaron Moesch, T.J. Schlundt and Matt Ferris had completed their careers at UW.
“They’re like brothers to me,” Davison said. “They’re not going to be in the locker room with you and that’s tough, especially because we’ve grown so close. Through a season like this with all the struggles, it really brings you closer. So that’s what hurts the most.”
On the other side of the locker room, junior center Ethan Happ was asked what he’s going to take away from a season that ended with the Badgers missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years.
Starting with a win over No. 6 Purdue on Feb. 15, UW went 4-2 in its final six games. Both of those defeats came against the No. 2 Spartans.
But the Badgers (15-18) couldn’t overcome a slow start to the season. At one point, they were 10-15 overall and 3-9 in Big Ten play following a stretch in which they lost eight times in nine games.
“I’ve got resilient guys around me,” Happ said. “From the outside it probably didn’t seem like a fun season, but there was a lot of little things that you really took for granted on other winning teams that were fun this year.”
Will next season be even more fun? It’s possible, considering UW could have all of its main pieces back for 2018-19.
But the Badgers enter the offseason with some key questions that need to be answered.
The most important one is whether Happ will return for his senior season. He said Friday that he’ll declare for the NBA draft and gather feedback before deciding if he’ll turn pro or spend a fifth year at UW.
That decision will change the entire outlook on UW’s prospects for next season considering Happ led the Badgers in scoring (17.9), rebounding (8.0), assists (3.7), steals (1.5) and blocks (1.1) while repeating as a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media this season.
The health of three players is another important topic for the Badgers. Sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice (foot) and freshman wing Kobe King (knee) were limited to only 10 games because of injuries, but both players are on the road to full recovery and are eager to get back on the court and make up for lost time.
Davison, meanwhile, will have surgery to repair his left shoulder. That he earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and led the Badgers in minutes played (1,028) was remarkable considering he played the final 29 games with just one healthy shoulder.
Another issue to consider is what the roster will look like by the time next season rolls around. Happ may not be the only player pondering a move, and junior forward Andy Van Vliet would be the most likely to leave after strongly considering a departure from UW a year ago.
Van Vliet, who started the first four games of the season before finding himself out of the rotation entirely until a few appearances late in the season, declined to address his future on Friday.
If every eligible player comes back, the Badgers would return 97.6 percent of their scoring and 97.8 percent of their rebounding.
Getting King and Trice back will bolster the team’s depth in the backcourt. So will the addition of point guard Trevor Anderson, who sat out this season after transferring from UW-Green Bay, where he started 20 games as a true freshman in 2016-17.
As of now, the two players in UW’s 2018 recruiting class are Taylor Currie of Michigan and preferred walk-on Joe Hedstrom of Minnesota. Both are viewed as developmental bigs. The Badgers have one scholarship to give and have been trying to add a guard, with Tai Strickland of Florida being their latest target.
UW coach Greg Gard and his staff also have the option of adding a graduate transfer if the fit is right.
“It’s going to be a great team next year,” Davison said. “We’re going to hopefully have everyone back, people will be healthy, and like I said we’re going to have this taste in our mouth that no other Wisconsin team has (had since 1998), and that gives us an opportunity to be special, it gives us an opportunity to have a great story to tell, a bounce-back season, and we’re all for that to start right away.”
The other piece of the puzzle is the necessary development the returning players need to make between now and the start of next season.
It’s a particularly important offseason to players such as freshman Nate Reuvers and redshirt freshman Aleem Ford, each of whom were part of a revolving door at the “4” spot alongside Happ.
The Badgers finished with fewer rebounds than their opponents this season, the first time that’s happened in 16 years. Reuvers and Ford struggled in that category while playing against older, stronger, more physical opponents, combining for 4.8 rebounds per game.
Reuvers was set to redshirt this season, but those plans changed when Van Vliet and fellow juniors Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas failed to establish themselves as reliable rotation players. By the end of the season, Reuvers’ legs were gone and he grabbed only five rebounds in the final eight games, three of which came against Michigan State on Friday.
The staff is excited about Reuvers’ future, and it should be. If he adds some strength, Reuvers has a chance to be a terrific player on both ends of the court.
After the loss to Michigan State, Gard told his players he was proud of them for the improvement they showed late in the season. He spoke over and over about their resiliency during a season that should provide some valuable lessons for the future.
“It’s just unfortunate we didn’t turn it around sooner,” Davison said. “And after the sad locker rooms and the locker room we’ve been in today, it should add fuel to the fire for next year. As much as it hurts right now, we’re going to be ready to go next year.”