A year ago, when his inexperienced, short-handed team finished last in the WIAC men’s basketball race, UW-Platteville coach Jeff Gard was often on the receiving end of advice from his big brother, Greg, the coach at the University of Wisconsin.
This year, with the Badgers enduring a rare down season, the sneaker is on the other foot.
“All of our conversations are like, ‘Well, this is what you told me last year,’ ” Jeff Gard said. “It’s kind of the same.”
In many ways, it’s exactly the same. Like the Pioneers last year, the current Badgers are young and short-handed due to injury. And like the Pioneers, they suffered a string of close losses in a historically tough conference. But if the Badgers can end up in the same place the Pioneers did, it will all be worth it.
Platteville beat preseason favorite UW-River Falls at home Saturday night, completing a remarkable worst-to-first journey by claiming the outright WIAC championship. At a school where the gymnasium walls are crammed with reminders of remarkable achievements, the Pioneers accomplished something truly special by going from a 1-13 record in the conference to 14-2 in just 52 weeks.
It was the first time in WIAC history a team had gone from last to first in one year. It also was Platteville’s first title since it shared the 2004-05 crown and its first undisputed title since 1998-99, when Bo Ryan was the coach, Greg Gard was an assistant and a young Jeff Gard was in the stands with his family. Greg was there Saturday night with the rest of the Gard family, plus 1,200 other fans who have rediscovered Platteville basketball.
“They were sitting right in that same area where I was sitting in back in ’99 when they won the conference title,” Jeff Gard said. “It was kind of a surreal moment about what we just accomplished. It was pretty cool to experience that and to have the community and the tri-state area come out and celebrate it with us.”
A surreal moment maybe, but there is nothing freakish about what the Pioneers have done heading into their conference tournament opener Friday night. They’ve compiled a 22-3 record, losing only to Carleton in a tournament in Colorado and to WIAC powers River Falls and UW-Stevens Point on the road. In winning their past eight games, they avenged both of those losses and beat UW-Whitewater twice. In the process, they climbed to No. 5 in the D3hoops.com national poll.
With the maturity of four returning starters, depth created by a strong freshman class and a return to good health, Platteville has been a tough out in this, Jeff Gard’s ninth season as coach. The key to turning last season’s 8-17 record into a distant memory will be familiar to fans who watched Ryan and Greg Gard over the past 17 years at UW: Stay patient and believe in what you’re doing despite the losses.
“One thing Greg was constantly on me about was, ‘Hey, continue to drill your fundamentals. It will help you down the road,’ ” Jeff Gard said. “We stuck with who we are. We stayed with what we’re all about and believed in what we’re doing and just reiterated the fundamentals. One thing during a losing season, sometimes it’s easy to jump off the wagon and completely scrap everything. But if you believe that what you’re doing is the right stuff, you’ve got to stick with it and continue to get your players to buy in. I think that’s what this group did. They bought in and then in the offseason they really bought into their own conditioning and what they needed to do to step up and change what happened last year.
“The big thing we talked about a lot, and I know Greg does as well, was the process. As I told them the first night in the locker room before we took the floor, ‘We’ve always been about the process and the process is not about winning X number of games, it’s about, what do you need to do to win those games?’ We stayed true to that all year long. It wasn’t about, ‘Hey, we’re playing Whitewater in a big rivalry game,’ or, ‘We’re playing Hope in a big non-conference game.’ It’s, ‘Go out and do what we’re supposed to do, control what we can control and make this about us.’ ”
The Pioneers have done that with an efficient offense and a consistent defense. The ball movement in their swing offense is textbook and their defense can be stifling at times. Indeed, Platteville leads the WIAC in field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage, free throw percentage, opponents’ field-goal percentage and opponents’ 3-point percentage.
“We knew coming in we had some guys who could put the ball in the hole and we would be very efficient offensively,” Jeff Gard said. “But the big thing we preached with this group was defense, the buy-in. In this league in particular, you can’t get into a track meet with teams and just trade buckets. You’ve got to get stops.”
Among the starters, seniors Matt Oestreich and Jake Showalter (Zak’s brother), juniors Robert Duax and Clay Gerds and sophomore Carter Voelker brought great experience after learning through adversity last year. Unlike the Badgers, the Pioneers are deep enough that they were able to work three freshmen — Quentin Shields, Justin Stovall and Alex Ranney — in gradually, not all at once.
“When I look at us now and as I talk to people about Greg’s team and what’s going on there, I’m like, ‘You’ve got to look at the silver lining in all of it. Look at the experience these guys are getting that they probably wouldn’t have and how it can catapult them into the next year,’ ” Jeff Gard said. “Yeah, you’re taking bumps, but you’re learning some lessons from it. I think that’s a big piece of our success.”
And a great lesson for everyone to remember.