The final piece of the puzzle had been put into place for his 2020 recruiting class and, for a good 30 minutes, Greg Gard had nobody to celebrate with as he sat patiently on a United Airlines regional jet.
Joining the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach on the flight bound for Chicago the morning of Sept. 13 was Alando Tucker, who was seated a row in front of Gard. Another assistant, Joe Krabbenhoft, was seated near the back of the plane. The final member of UW’s staff, Dean Oliver, was back home.
The group was just about to leave for their first leg of a trip to San Diego to visit another prospect when Krabbenhoft received a call from Ben Carlson, a forward from Minnesota who was ready to accept the fifth and final scholarship available in the 2020 class. The cabin doors had closed and a flight attendant was giving Krabbenhoft a not-so-subtle reminder that it was time to put his phone in airplane mode, so he ended the call, somehow got the attention of Gard and used hand gestures to let his boss know to keep his phone on.
A few seconds later, as the plane was taxing to the runway, Gard’s phone buzzed. He answered the call, leaned over in his seat and, after no more than 90 seconds, told Carlson he was excited by the news but really had to go because he had just been tapped on the shoulder by a flight attendant. Gard gave thumbs-up signals to Krabbenhoft and Tucker and, about a minute later, the plane was wheels up.
Thus completed a recruiting cycle that produced the highest-rated UW class of an internet rankings era that began in 2003. On Wednesday, the Badgers received signed letters of intent from Carlson and another big man from the Twin Cities, Steven Crowl; La Crosse Central twin wings Johnny and Jordan Davis; and Lorne Bowman, a point guard from the Detroit area. The sixth member of the class, Hartland Arrowhead forward Carter Gilmore, can’t be officially announced by UW until the spring because he’s a preferred walk-on.
Putting together a class that large was a process that took, in some cases, years of building relationships. It required Gard and Co. to navigate twists, turns and even a tragedy.
A proper celebration couldn’t take place until the three co-workers on that United flight completed the deboarding process at O’Hare International Airport. Gard, Krabbenhoft and Tucker exchanged high-fives and hugs and headed to a rental car counter to get a vehicle to bring them back home to Madison. They called Brandon Angel, a forward who eventually signed with Stanford, to tell him there were no more scholarships available and they’d be canceling the trip to California to see him.
As they made their way home, Krabbenhoft offered a friendly reminder to Tucker, a relative newbie in the world of recruiting: It doesn’t always happen like this.
“I found out fast in this business, you get told no more than you do yes,” Krabbenhoft said. “It was nice in this class that the targets that we had our eyes on wanted to be here.”
One of Gard’s favorite sayings in recruiting is that classes should be drawn up using pencils, not pens. The point is the variables are always changing.
The construction of the 2020 class is a perfect example. The Badgers’ recruiting board was constantly changing right up until the final day, when Carlson, who first stepped foot on the UW campus as a freshman in high school, committed as the staff was still pursuing Angel and Zed Key, a forward from New York who ended up committing to Ohio State. Crowl was barely on UW’s radar when Bowman orally committed to the Badgers late last fall; Johnny Davis was offered as a sophomore but his brother had to wait another 17 months before receiving a tender from the program he ended up picking.
Back when Bowman committed, the UW staff was operating as if 2020 was going to be a three-member class. Two scholarships opened following the 2018-19 season when Tai Strickland and Taylor Currie decided to leave the program, but UW pursued Marquette transfers Joey and Sam Hauser to fill those spots.
Not landing the Hausers — Joey ended up at Michigan State, Sam at Virginia — was viewed as a catastrophe by some UW fans. Another way of looking at that saga is it created some flexibility for Gard in 2020 because he had two more open scholarships available.
Not that it would be easy. As late May rolled around and it became clear the Hausers were headed elsewhere, the UW staff had only Bowman committed. There was a lot of work to be done for a program that was in a recruiting slump.
Gard insists he doesn’t count days between commitments. Had he, Gard would have known the Badgers went 211 days without one after Bowman pledged his allegiance on Nov. 18, 2018.
That drought came on the heels of in-state standout Tyler Herro decommitting from the Badgers and choosing Kentucky late in the 2018 cycle. UW landed Minnesota forward Tyler Wahl in 2019, but it didn’t even make the list of finalists for two highly regarded players it pursued for a long time: forward Zeke Nnaji and point guard D.J. Carton.
Meanwhile, even though UW was among the finalists for its top target in the 2020 class — in-state blue-chipper Jalen Johnson — the writing was on the wall that the consensus top-10 prospect was headed to Duke.
“It’s disappointing, because you spend so much time on those guys and you really want them to be part of your program,” Oliver said. “And then they turn you down, and it’s kind of like back in middle school when you got turned down for the dance.
“So you have those moments, but then you just get back up. We believe in our program, we believe in what we’re doing, we know that what we’re doing is going to attract the right people that want to be part of what we’re doing. You just get back to the grind. It’s kind of like missing a shot. Keep shooting it.”
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Most of the heavy lifting for the 2020 class was done over the summer months, when Gard and his assistants were operating with broken hearts.
On the early morning hours of May 25, UW assistant coach Howard Moore and his family were involved in a crash in Michigan. Moore’s wife Jen and 9-year-old daughter Jaidyn were killed as a result of the crash. Howard Moore sustained serious burns and, a month later, had a heart attack that left him fighting for his life; he’s now in a long-term facility and is on medical leave from the program.
That crash, caused by a wrong-way driver who also died, left Gard and his staff reeling. Sitting at AAU tournaments, driving to see recruits, sending text messages? It all felt so insignificant as they mourned the loss of Jen and Jaidyn, prayed for Howard’s condition to improve and worried about the lone surviving Moore child, 13-year-old Jerell.
Tucker eventually was hired as an interim coach to replace Moore, and the staff moved forward. What those from outside the program saw — including 2020 targets — was a family coming together to cope. Prospects, and their parents, witnessed raw moments of emotion from UW coaches and players, a group working together to overcome an actual catastrophe, not the kind where a recruit picks another program over yours.
“That was a terrible thing that happened to coach Moore and his family,” Carlson said. “I think it definitely brought out what the people at Wisconsin are really like and I think kind of showed me just how good of people they are and how much they really care. It was a terrible thing, but I think it brought out some of the best in the people there.”
Bowman agrees, saying UW felt different than other programs he considered. “It’s not really even a basketball team,” he said, “it’s more like a family.”
As Gard sat in his office this week, he shared a story from before this class really had even begun to take shape. A few days after the crash, Gard visited Howard Moore at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor. As Gard was saying goodbye, Moore, wrapped in bandages, pulled him close.
“Coach,” Moore told Gard, “we’re going to put together a hell of a class. We’re going to do it.”
Gard maintains recruiting is cyclical and what followed the 211-day drought was UW receiving eight oral commitments in a span of 106 days. That surge began with the Davis twins on June 15 and includes one walk-on (Gilmore) and three players in the 2021 class.
A program that was stuck in neutral on the recruiting trail started rolling … and rolling … and rolling.
“Once I saw that they got two in-state guys, I thought they would get some more guys and keep the momentum going,” Carlson said. “I wanted to be part of that, playing with five other guys who were really skilled.”
The vision the UW staff sold to recruits included talk of a shift in philosophy. Here’s how Oliver explained it: “Building upon what we’ve done recently,” he said, “but also taking the next step, trying to play smart but fast.”
A more up-tempo system appealed to Bowman, who for seven months was the only commitment in the class. Once Johnny and Jordan Davis climbed aboard, Bowman could see UW’s vision of adding more athletic players to the fold was starting to take shape.
The final pieces of the puzzle were filled one day apart in mid-September. On the day Crowl committed, Gard and Carlson spoke on the phone for 30 minutes that night. According to Carlson, the conversation was less about basketball and more about life off the court: academics and creating connections at UW that would be there long after his playing career was over.
There was also an underlying theme to the Badgers’ pitch that didn’t need to be spoken because it could be seen: A culture that Gard believes is as strong as ever.
The core of the 2019-20 UW roster is a group of third- and fourth-year players that includes Brad Davison, Nate Reuvers, D’Mitrik Trice, Aleem Ford, Kobe King, Micah Potter and Trevor Anderson. Gard and Co. relied heavily on that group and fifth-year senior Brevin Pritzl, who won’t even play with any members from the 2020 class, to help paint a picture of life within the program.
“Our guys, they recruit to this program better than anybody because they’re living it and they believe it and they love it,” Krabbenhoft said. “I think they deserve the credit here.”
When it was over, after Gard had turned his phone off and that United flight rose above the clouds, he couldn’t celebrate but had plenty of ways to fill his time. Maybe he thought of how proud he was of his staff for playing through pain and never losing focus of what was important. Maybe he counted his blessings that his current players served as good examples during the recruiting process and would be solid mentors when the 2020 class arrived on campus.
Or maybe he took the time to think of how much he’d like to share the moment with his fallen assistant. Moore was prophetic, after all: The Badgers had done it. They’d put together a hell of a class.