Typically, Greg Gard and the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team would be preparing for the Big Ten Conference tournament this week with an eye on improving UW’s NCAA tournament seeding.
This is no ordinary March for the Badgers.
Gard’s week began with the strange task of officially declaring UW’s season over, an NCAA formality that begins a seven-day window in which coaches aren’t allowed to have any on-court contact with players.
After the Badgers dropped a 63-60 decision to Michigan State in a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal on Friday in New York, Gard pored over analytics to determine whether UW had a chance to be invited to the NIT despite its 15-18 record. He realized the chances were slim, so the program formally took itself out of contention.
It’s hard to imagine the players would have been inspired to play in the NIT or one of the other minor postseason tournaments. It also would have put UW in the position of having to decide whether to push back surgery for freshman guard Brad Davison, who underwent a procedure Monday to repair his injured left shoulder and now faces a long rehabilitation process.
What Gard realized over the past few days was that, while he’d much prefer to be gearing up for the NCAA tournament right now, there are a few silver linings to how the season ended. Not only do the Badgers have confidence after going 4-2 down the stretch — both of those defeats came against then-No. 2 Michigan State, by a combined eight points — there’s also a sour taste in their mouths after not extending an NCAA tournament streak that had reached 19 seasons.
“It’s a good mix of both,” Gard said Monday. “There’s a fever pitch right now. We’re going in the right direction, but we didn’t get what we wanted.”
Gard will begin exit interviews with his players later this week. He’s also told them to stay out of the gym next week, mindful of the fact the Badgers have been going almost non-stop since June due to a summer trip to Australia and New Zealand.
UW will begin offseason workouts the week of March 19, Gard said. After a week off for spring break, the Badgers will have four more weeks of workouts in April.
Meanwhile, the UW coaching staff will try to take advantage of an open calendar in March by hitting the recruiting trail. Gard and his three assistants will be out on the road Thursday, Friday and Saturday watching high school postseason games in Wisconsin and other states.
UW has one remaining scholarship in the 2018 class, but that could change if a player leaves the program. Ethan Happ’s decision on his future also could affect the scholarship count — he will declare for the NBA draft but is open to returning for his senior season if he’s not a first-round pick — but that likely won’t get sorted out until late May or early June.
As of now, the Badgers have one offer out in the 2018 class: Tai Strickland, a point guard from Florida who is the son of former NBA standout Rod Strickland.
But Gard said the program is weighing all options, whether it’s junior college players, graduate transfers or transfers with more than one season of eligibility remaining who would have to sit out the 2018-19 season.
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“I think you have to constantly be in aggressive mode,” Gard said. “You’re always prepared. Even if you think everybody’s back, you never know what can change. You never want to get caught trying to play catch-up.
“The grad-transfer thing will start, the transfer thing will start. The coaching carousel will start and that’ll shake up commitments, that’ll shake up signees, that will shake up transfers. You always have to be recruiting, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
How the roster shakes out over the next three months also will determine how many scholarships UW has available for its 2019 class.
The Badgers have five seniors-to-be on their roster — Happ, Khalil Iverson, Alex Illikainen, Charlie Thomas and Andy Van Vliet — and likely will need to add size in 2019.
Gard said UW may try to balance its classes a little better and spread out scholarships more evenly over the 2019 and ’20 classes.
Among the Badgers’ targets in 2019 are Racine Park center Nobal Days; point guard D.J. Carton of Bettendorf, Iowa; a quartet of players from Minnesota that includes forwards Matthew Hurt of Rochester, Zeke Nnaji of Hopkins and Tyler Wahl of Lakeville North, along with point guard Tyrell Terry of Minneapolis; wing Jeremiah Hernandez of Arlington Heights, Illinois; and forward Rodney Howard of Roswell, Georgia.
The 2020 class is considered deeper, particularly the in-state group. UW already has offered a pair of sophomores from Wisconsin: Sun Prairie jack-of-all-trades Jalen Johnson and La Crosse Central combo guard Jonathan Davis.
UW also is evaluating Davis’ brother, Jordan, a wing, while also keeping an eye on a set of twins who grew up in Wisconsin and now live in Rochester, Gabe and Mason Madsen.
Another intriguing set of brothers on the radar are part of a military family now living in El Paso, Texas. Jawaun Newton is a guard in the 2018 class, while Tristen Newton is a guard in 2019. Their cousin, Aaron Jones, is a running back for the Green Bay Packers.
Gard and Co. hit the recruiting trail in uncharted waters after the program failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. But Gard said his message won’t change much.
“They understand what we went through. They watched us, they know. What I’ve tried to make sure to focus on is, 19 straight years is unbelievable,” Gard said, noting other Big Ten programs such as Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue all missed the NCAA tournament multiple times during the Badgers’ run.
“I think it’s more of a reflection of how remarkable that 19 years is and how everything was able to be sustained.”