BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — It’s fitting that an abnormal non-conference scheduling cycle ends this way for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team: with a true road game against a mid-major opponent.
This season marked the first time since 2001-02 that the Badgers will play more non-conference games away from home (six) than at the Kohl Center (five). UW has won at Xavier and lost at Marquette in addition to going 2-1 at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas last month.
The final tuneup for the No. 15 Badgers (10-2) before they get back into Big Ten play next week comes Saturday against Western Kentucky (6-6) at E.A. Diddle Arena. The game completes a home-and-home series between the programs and was part of an unusual arrangement that included a home football game for UW.
It’s unlikely the Badgers will enter into a similar deal anytime soon, at least if Greg Gard has anything to say about it.
The deal, which consists of separate contracts for football and basketball, was proposed back in early 2016 and made sense to some parties.
Western Kentucky’s football program received a $1.35 million payday to open the 2018 season at Camp Randall Stadium. While that’s a lot of money, UW was pleased to get a home game against a program of that caliber — the Hilltoppers finished the 2015 season with 11 wins and ranked No. 24 in the nation — at less than the going rate.
Another big winner was the Western Kentucky men’s basketball program, which secured a home game against a Big Ten opponent. Around the same time, the Hilltoppers entered into a similar agreement with Arkansas.
“I think there’s benefit to them and obviously there’s always benefit to Western Kentucky if we’re mentioned in the same sentence as Wisconsin,” Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart, who proposed the deal with UW, told USA Today back in 2016. “I really do believe it was a win-win situation.”
Well, not completely.
While Gard signed his name on the contract on Feb. 19, 2016, he had little choice in the matter. The deal was agreed to about a month earlier, when the Badgers were 9-9 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten play and Gard was an interim coach trying to save a season following Bo Ryan’s abrupt retirement in mid-December.
“It really didn’t get to my desk. It was like, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen,’ ” said Gard, who turned to gallows humor at the time. “I said, ‘Hey, the next head coach will have to deal with that.’ ”
For the Badgers, there’s more to lose than gain while playing a road game against a team that is No. 148 in the NET rankings.
UW’s collection of wins away from home are a big reason it is No. 4 in the NET, and another one wouldn’t hurt. But UW would prefer to beef up future schedules, starting as early as the 2019-20 season, with home-and-home series against major conference opponents.
“There’s some value to it,” Gard said when asked if he’s come around at all on the Western Kentucky deal. “Would we probably in a perfect world schedule that? Probably not, just because we have so many other options at play.”