Badgers men’s basketball: UW-Green Bay game marks a year since Greg Gard debuted as coach — vs. UW-Green Bay
Greg Gard gets ready to face a Phoenix squad that nearly made his first game as coach a nightmare
So much of the night was memorable for Greg Gard.
As he walked on the court prior to making his debut as University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach, an interim tag included in his title at the time, Gard received a standing ovation from the crowd at the Kohl Center. Afterward, dozens of family and friends, many of them from his tiny hometown of Cobb in southwestern Wisconsin, filed into the media room to support Gard after his first career win.
The game itself, an 84-79 victory over UW-Green Bay two days before Christmas last year, was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.
“Obviously,” Gard said earlier this week, “I remember 26 turnovers.”
Even if Gard wanted to erase that part of the experience from his brain, the flashback would have come this week as he watched video of the game to help the No. 14 Badgers (9-2) get ready for a game against the Phoenix (4-5) at the Kohl Center tonight.
Ditto for UW associate head coach Lamont Paris, whose duties this week included preparing a scouting report on UW-Green Bay.
“We couldn’t get out of our own way,” Paris said. “It was just was strange.”
Before diving into the ugly details, some background is necessary: The Badgers’ non-conference finale against the Phoenix came just over a week after Bo Ryan’s shocking departure following a sloppy victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. UW players spent that week between games taking final exams and hearing rumors related to Ryan’s abrupt retirement.
Gard, meanwhile, had his hands full on multiple fronts. His first priority was dealing with a fragile locker room; next on that list was overhauling the team’s offense.
“It was an emotional week,” UW senior guard Zak Showalter said. “We had heard a lot of things and were trying to put basketball at the forefront of everything we were doing, but there was a lot of (expletive) going on that was distracting.”
Showalter was quick to point out that was no excuse for what happened over the final 13 minutes of the game. After Nigel Hayes made two free throws to give UW a 68-38 lead, its biggest cushion of the game, all hell broke loose.
The Badgers had 15 turnovers in a span of 25 possessions, failing to get the ball into the frontcourt seven times during that span. There were eight consecutive turnovers during one stretch.
Suddenly, the Phoenix had cut a 30-point deficit down to three. UW was clinging to a 79-76 lead in the final minute when point guard Bronson Koenig was stripped on a drive, the team’s 26th and final turnover of the game.
UW-Green Bay wasted two opportunities to draw closer, and the Badgers made four free throws over the final 14.8 seconds to avoid what would have been a monumental collapse.
Koenig, who finished with eight turnovers, said he’d like to forget that game. One problem: His roommates, a group of longtime friends from his hometown of La Crosse, won’t allow that to happen.
“Whenever ‘Green Bay’ is mentioned, they’re just like, ‘Eight turnovers,’ ” Koenig said. “They’re brutal to me. They won’t let me forget it.”
Koenig said he was looking forward to gaining at least some measure of redemption against the Phoenix, who will again try to wreak havoc with their full-court pressure.
Several times in last season’s game, Koenig found himself in a trap before he could get the ball past mid-court. In Koenig’s defense, his teammates often left him stranded on an island.
“If they’re trapping everything,” Showalter said, “the rest of us have to come up and be there for him and not run away and leave him there to deal with it himself.”
A lot of UW’s turnovers a year ago were self-induced, running the gamut from ill-advised passes to not being strong with the ball to not being able to execute a simple catch. Ethan Happ remembers hearing boos after his one-handed pass in a two-on-one situation was intercepted. The turnover that started the free fall was the result of Showalter trying to complete a pass from one free throw line to the other.
“They’re going to try to get up into us and pressure us,” Koenig said. “I think we’re much better off this year with the emphasis the coaches have put on taking care of the ball, and we’ve done a lot better job of that as of late.”
Indeed, the Badgers have made big improvements in terms of taking care of the ball. After averaging 13.1 turnovers over the first four games, they’ve produced totals of five, 10 and nine the past three games.
During the second half of a 58-point outburst in a 93-84 win at Marquette on Saturday, UW had only two turnovers in 37 possessions.
“I think we’re making better decisions,” Gard said. “We’re not trying to force passes into places that they shouldn’t be going.”
As for his debut, that game 51 weeks ago feels almost like a different lifetime to Gard.
“I know we’re in a much better place now,” he said. “I’m just excited about this group and where they can be and what we can still accomplish.”