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Greg Gard believes 'rigorous' preseason will have Badgers men's basketball team ready for busy campaign
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Greg Gard believes 'rigorous' preseason will have Badgers men's basketball team ready for busy campaign

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Greg Gard

Badgers coach Greg Gard was named Big Ten Coach of the Year last season after guiding UW to a share of the regular-season title.

D’Mitrik Trice let out a huge sigh before he answered a question about a preseason that was more demanding than usual, by design, for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.

“Conditioning,” Trice said during a recent Zoom interview session, “was not one of my fun, happy moments.”

That response is sure to bring a smile to Greg Gard’s face. That’s exactly how the UW coach wanted it as the Badgers prepare for a 2020-21 season that will start late due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teams can officially begin playing games on Nov. 25 and, even though that starting date is exactly a month away, UW and other programs around the country still are scrambling to fill out their schedules. Gard can say this much about his team’s slate: It will be busy.

“We intentionally made the preseason much more rigorous than ever before really in terms of our conditioning aspect,” Gard said, “knowing that that there’s a lot of unknowns in terms of where the schedule is going to fall (and) how it’s going to look.”

In charge of whipping the Badgers into shape was Jim Snider, an associate director in UW’s strength and conditioning program. Snider is a longtime member of the men’s and women’s hockey staffs but is doing triple-duty with the athletic department in the midst of some cost-cutting due to the pandemic.

UW never hired a replacement for men’s basketball strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland, who was forced to resign last February after admitting to using a racial epithet in front of players while telling a story. UW announced recently that about 30 open jobs won’t be filled during a hiring freeze, and athletic director Barry Alvarez confirmed this week that the full-time position previously held by Helland won't be filled anytime soon.

Snider worked with Gard’s program as part of a tag-team operation late in the 2019-20 season after Helland left the program, so he was familiar with the returning players. Senior guard Brad Davison offered Snider a shout-out recently, saying “coach Snides did a great job” guiding the Badgers through the preseason.

Snider, for his part, arrived with a theme at the start of preseason work.

“Listen, we might have won an ESPN national championship,” Snider told the players, referring to the results of a simulated NCAA tournament bracket released last March, “but let’s go out this year and win the real thing.”

The indoor conditioning drill that left a lasting impression on the Badgers was something that was introduced by Gard and taken from the playbook of the Miami Heat, who use it as part of their training camp evaluation. Players run the length of the court 10 times in 60 seconds, then take a 2-minute break before doing the same thing over again. By the end of the preseason, according to Snider, UW was up to four reps.

Trice called it “a terrible drill that I don’t wish on my worst enemies.”

Added senior forward Micah Potter: “It’s a dog. It’s tough.”

The Badgers ran Bascom Hill as part of their preseason work in each of Gard’s first four full seasons in charge of the program, but there was a change this season.

The challenge this time? The stairs in the upper deck at Camp Randall Stadium.

Gard said returning players told him doing the stairs was a bigger challenge than the hill.

“I’ve always felt the hill, its inception obviously has a physical component but one of the biggest benefits of that has been the mental challenge it presents and the tossing and turning the night before you have to run it as a player,” Gard said. “It creates the angst, it creates a mental opponent you have to overcome and I think the stadium steps accomplished the same goal.”

Snider said he tried to make running the stairs as specific to basketball as possible. Players would do short bursts followed by some jogging, then back to explosive bursts.

The idea, whether it was the Miami drill or what they did at Camp Randall, was to get the Badgers in better shape while also building some chemistry. An abbreviated offseason meant less time to bond for a team made up of seven seniors, seven freshmen and three players in the middle two classes.

“The guys responded really well,” Davison said. “We really pushed ourselves, we held each other accountable. Moments like that where you’re suffering a little bit, pushing yourself, getting outside your comfort zone, that’s what binds teams together, too, and so it was a great way to kind of make up not having a summer to be with each other and connect on a relationship basis.”

Guidelines put in place due to the pandemic meant small-group settings and no chance to do 5-on-5 work until about two weeks ago, so Gard used those practices to work on conditioning as well. Forward Aleem Ford, who, like Trice, is entering his fifth year in the program, could tell the difference.

“From a workout standpoint, I felt like he really pushed us,” Ford said. “Our skill workouts that we had on the court were a little bit more intense and everything was at a quicker speed and you could tell that we had a little different intensity and kind of a sense of urgency with things.”

Trice thought the Badgers were in good shape last year, but even he had to admit that they took it to another level this season.

As much as the 2019-20 campaign will be remembered for UW winning its final eight games to earn a share of the Big Ten Conference regular-season title, it’s safe to say Gard has offered a not-so-subtle reminder to his players about the 5-5 start to the season.

That also led to a desire to push the Badgers harder than ever this preseason.

“One of the things I say is get better, faster,” Gard said. “Let’s get out of the gates faster, let’s become a better team quicker than what we were a year ago.”

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