When Greg Gard was given the reins as interim head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers in the middle of December, he was definitely replacing a legend in Bo Ryan.
In 14-plus years as head coach of the Badgers, Ryan had a 364-130 record. Up until this season, the Badgers never finished lower than fourth place in the Big Ten in any of the preceding years under Ryan.
The Badgers also went to the NCAA tournament every year with Ryan as head coach. Plus, Wisconsin won four regular season Big Ten championships and three Big Ten tournament championships under Bo.
In the NCAA tournament, Ryan saw his team advance to the Sweet 16 seven times, the Elite 8 three times and the Final Four twice.
In 2015, the Badgers played in the NCAA national title game, but lost to Duke.
Ryan was also named Big Ten Coach of the Year four times (2002, 2003, 2013 and 2015).
But the 2015-16 Badgers would be different, as the Badgers lost five key players from last year’s 36-4 team, including Frank Kaminsky (National College Player of the Year) and Sam Dekker, who were both first-round picks in the NBA draft.
Ryan announced to the media this past summer that the 2015-16 season would be his last at Wisconsin.
The Badgers had a tough start to their season, as the team went 7-5 under Ryan. Included in those defeats were losses to Marquette and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
After a win versus Texas A&M Corpus Christi on December 15, Ryan announced that he was retiring immediately and that Gard would be taking over as head coach on an interim basis.
Athletic director Barry Alvarez said that he intended to do a national search for a new head coach following the season, but that he would also evaluate whether Gard might be his best option to remain as head coach.
Based on the 12 games so far that Gard has been the head coach of the Badgers, I believe Gard deserves to have the interim removed from his title and he should be signed to a long-term contract.
The Badgers have gone 8-4 under Gard, which includes a 7-4 mark in the Big Ten, which includes a six-game winning streak.
The four losses in conference play have been by a combined 15 points.
The six-game winning streak has propelled the Badgers back into the discussion about making the NCAA tournament for an 18th consecutive year.
The Badgers have a very difficult schedule down the stretch, as they will have to play conference road games versus Maryland (10-2), Michigan State (7-5), Iowa (10-1) and Purdue (8-4).
The Badgers also have a road game at Minnesota (0-12), besides hosting Illinois (3-8) and Michigan (8-4) at the Kohl Center.
If the Badgers can win just three of their remaining conference games, that would give them 10 on the season and probably get them another bid to the Big Dance.
The Badgers have responded to Gard and are playing the same tough, smart and tenacious style of basketball that they played under Ryan.
Ryan was a mentor to Gard and one can see that now with the way the Badgers are currently playing. Gard had been an assistant to Ryan at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville starting in 1993, where Ryan won four Division III national championships during his tenure there.
Gard followed Ryan to UWM, where the Panthers were 30-27 in the two years Ryan coached in Milwaukee.
Then came the 14-plus year run in Madison as an assistant to Ryan, including when Gard became the associate head coach of Badgers, starting in 2008.
Now Gard runs the entire show. And you can see the current team growing before your eyes.
Yes, the Badgers still have the steady play of junior Nigel Hayes (17.3 PPG), who has definitely become the team leader, along with Bronson Koenig (13.3 PPG), who is also just a junior.
Two other juniors, Zak Showalter (7.6 PPG) and Vitto Brown (9.0 PPG), have definitely stepped up their play.
But it’s been the play of the freshman and sophomores which have really made the difference for the recent resurgence by the Badgers.
Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ (11.9 PPG) has been a force in the paint and one can see how all of the practicing against Kaminsky last year has paid off for him.
Gard has been using his younger players much more often than Ryan did at Wisconsin, and players like redshirt sophomore Jordan Hill (3.2 PPG), freshman Charlie Thomas (2.9 PPG), freshman Alex Illikainen (2.8 PPG) and freshman Khalil Iverson (2.8 PPG) are taking advantage of their playing time.
Bottom line, Gard has proven that he can get the job done running the Wisconsin basketball program. It’s obvious that he learned his lessons very well from his mentor Ryan.
It’s time to remove the interim status from Gard’s title. I believe that day is coming soon, based on the words from Alvarez last week.
“I’ve been impressed with how our basketball team has improved,” Alvarez said. “I think it’s quite obvious. There’s individual improvement, I’ve been very impressed with adjustment and his movements during a game — how he matches players up.
“I spend so much time as a coach, you talk about improving, putting your players in the best possible positions. I see them playing an entire game, winning tough games.
“I’ve been very much impressed.”