University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Greg Gard was looking forward to spending a few more weeks leading a team that had hit its stride down the stretch run of the regular season.
But there will be no postseason for the red-hot Badgers, whose 2019-20 campaign ended abruptly Thursday when the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments were canceled due to concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
“It’s been a wild ending,” Gard said, “to a wild season.”
Officially, UW finished the season with a 21-10 record and an eight-game winning streak. It will be remembered as a team that overcame several obstacles to win a share of the program’s first Big Ten regular-season title in five years.
When he met with his team Thursday, Gard chose to focus on the positives rather than dwell on the fact the Badgers wouldn’t be able to continue their amazing journey deep into March, or perhaps even April.
That meeting took place prior to the announcement by the NCAA that it was canceling the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in addition to all other winter and spring championships. But once the Big Ten and other conferences canceled their tournaments earlier in the day, Gard felt it was inevitable that the NCAA would follow suit and he said his message to his players was to try to soak in everything they had accomplished.
“It was such an unbelievable year from where it started back in May, to all the things we’ve been through,” Gard said. “If there’s any silver lining in it, look at how we finished this thing up. I guess if you want to take a consolation from it, that’s where it lies is that we were able to finish with a bang and have a phenomenal run at the end.
“Obviously, they’re disappointed, but they also know they’re not alone, so it’s not like it was taken just from them. This happened to everybody. At the same time, I think they took some pride in what they had finished and what they had accomplished. From where they had come from, it’s a great story.”
Is it ever. When the Badgers convened early last summer, they were still reeling with tragedy after two members of Howard Moore’s family, his wife Jennifer and 9-year-old daughter Jaidyn, were killed in a car accident in Michigan in late May. Howard Moore was also injured in the crash and later had a heart attack that required him to be placed in long-term rehabilitation care.
Compared to those heartbreaking series of events, what the Badgers went through during the season was minor. Still, there were several formidable challenges that Gard and his team faced en route to a Big Ten title.
Junior forward Micah Potter, a transfer from Ohio State, sat out the first 10 games of the season after a handful of waivers filed on his behalf by UW were denied by the NCAA.
Sophomore wing Kobe King left the team in late January, a shocking departure that left the Badgers without their second-leading scorer the rest of the way. That same week, junior guard Brad Davison was suspended for a game by the Big Ten and heavily criticized by some in the national media for what the conference referred to as a “pattern” of poor sportsmanship on the court.
Finally, in early February, strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland was forced to resign after it was made public that he used a racial epithet in front of four walk-ons a month earlier.
UW was 13-10 overall and 6-6 in Big Ten play following a 70-52 loss at Minnesota on Feb. 5. That was its final loss of the season.
“They were a fun group to coach,” Gard said. “We kind of found our right spot in terms of everything. Where it was all going to lead to, who knows? When you get to March, your body of work doesn’t matter anymore. It’s about the 40 minutes that you’ve got in front of you. As disappointing as it is that it has to end like this, just looking backwards, that’s what I’ve tried to emphasize. Look at what we’ve tried to accomplish and what we’ve been through and what we’ve done here.”
The only seniors on the roster are Brevin Pritzl and walk-on Michael Ballard, so the Badgers could enter next season as one of the favorites to repeat in the Big Ten. They could even be on the short list of national title contenders, though it’s way too early to talk about 2020-21.
The end of the season has to be particularly rough on Pritzl, who played a key role in UW’s late-season surge.
Brian Pritzl said he spoke with his son after the NCAA’s announcement came out Thursday afternoon. Brevin Pritzl was disappointed, according to his father, but handling the situation well.
“I’m very disappointed for Brevin and the Badgers,” Brian Pritzl said. “Brevin, specifically, it’s been a great final year for him. I think there have been a lot of positives. The team’s really come together and he’s grown. Just to have it end so abruptly is probably the biggest thing.”
Gard said he understood why Big Ten and NCAA leaders made the decisions they did.
“We talked about that, that it’s bigger than basketball,” Gard said. “This goes far beyond what any of us can comprehend. Our guys are smart, they understand, they don’t live under a rock. They get the big picture of it. …
“There’s a lot of things that are out of our control and you just have to make the best of the situation. When you reflect back, a heck of a finish and let’s focus on that because all of this other stuff is out of our control.”
The final points of UW’s season were scored by Davison, whose two free throws with 7.1 seconds remaining sealed the Badgers’ 60-56 victory at Indiana last Saturday.
Gard and his players celebrated briefly on the court, but one of their best memories from the season will be the emotional gathering that followed in the visiting locker room.
The smiles, the hugs, the tears. It’s something Gard and the Badgers will carry with them the rest of their lives, regardless of the bizarre ending to the season.
“That’s why I told them Saturday to embrace all the things that have happened and the journey we’ve been on,” Gard said. “I even thought to myself on Saturday, and I shared that with them today, is that us winning it on the road and being able to celebrate it with just us in the locker room was very unique, given all we had been through. IF you do that at home, obviously you’ve got a court rush, you’ve got mobs of people around you. For us to have a secluded, private celebration given what has transpired since, I think is pretty unique.”