Wisconsin Basketball Grabbing Footing In Post-Bo Era

    Wisconsin basketball is showing signs of being on solid footing early in the post-Bo Ryan era.

    February 9, 2016

    Following early struggles, Wisconsin basketball has started to grab its footing in the post-Bo Ryan era.

    Change is hard. Always has been, always will be.

    The problem is with any change, there is uncertainty. Ordering something different than your usual from your favorite restaurant? Maybe it will be too spicy. Thinking about getting a divorce after being unhappily married for years? What if single life is worse?

    Whether the change is large or small, the response to the change is far more important than the change itself.

    When Bo Ryan decided to cut his farewell tour as Wisconsin head basketball coach short by a couple of months, it sent a shockwave through the college basketball world. Ryan said last summer that this year would be his last, and after 31-plus years on the sideline, the move was understandable. At least his players would get one last season with his wisdom, and they always knew he would be their anchor on the bench.

    Then he was gone.

    The master of the swing offense, the motivator and tenacious ref fighter suddenly disappeared, deciding Dec. 16 to walk off into the sunset, giving longtime assistant Greg Gard a shot at showing what he could do as interim coach.

    The early returns were not encouraging.

    Wisconsin was a shadow of its NCAA Tournament runner-up team of last year even when Ryan was there. Without him, the team looked like it didn’t have a rudder. It had nothing to do with Gard. It was more about a team finding itself.

    The Badgers lost four of its first six games without Bo, losing to Purdue, Indiana, Maryland and Northwestern. Two of those losses came at the Kohl Center, where just about nobody beat UW when Bo was on the sideline.

    Wisconsin could have folded. It could have hung its collective head and simply chalked up the season to the stress of the coaching change. It could have gone back to the bad-old days at Wisconsin when the Badgers were a gimmie win on everyone’s schedule. Before Bo got there in 2001, Wisconsin finished in the top half of the Big Ten just four times in the previous 30 years.

    With him, the Badgers never finished lower than fourth place in the league, and they never missed the NCAA Tournament.

    There are two questions facing the program right now. In the short term, can Wisconsin continue to bounce back from the early losses in league play and stretch its winning streak past a half dozen with road trips to Maryland and Michigan State coming up in the next 10 days?

    In the long term, will Wisconsin continue to be the program we’ve grown to know and love? Or will it revert to what it once was—an also-ran that rarely moved the needle nationally?

    Bo’s genius was his ability to develop players, to take guys few other teams wanted to mold them into men who fit his system perfectly. Frank Kaminsky, Brian Butch, Mike Bruesewitz, Jon Leuer, Greg Stiemsma… the list goes on. The Badgers always seemed stocked with polished big men who were tough to guard and made teams crazy with their flawless execution.

    Bo found players that nobody wanted and turned them into stars. Gard, of course, was there every step of the way, helping squeeze every last drop of talent out of the Badgers. Still, it’s one thing to do it at the knee of a mentor. It’s something different when you’re on your own.

    Gard says the transition has felt natural, that he’s enjoying it and having fun with it. The Badgers are again on pace to reach the NCAA Tournament despite having a team that can’t create its own offense and doesn’t have the stars it had in recent years.

    Still, there’s Ethan Happ, a 6-9 redshirt freshman who looks for all the world like the next stud Wisconsin big man. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are both juniors who have taken up the mantle as leaders and are getting more comfortable with each passing game.

    In other words, there is promise even without Bo.

    We’ll see how March plays out. Maybe Gard succeeds and keeps the job. Maybe he struggles down the stretch and doesn’t. No matter what happens, the program seems to show signs of being on solid footing without Ryan, which means the bad-old days will stay where UW hopes they belong—in the past.

    MORE: 5 Keys To Wisconsin’s 2016 Football Schedule


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