Former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was always focused on what’s next. Whether his team did something good or something bad, it was always ‘Next.’ The mantra was even printed on the inside collar of the postseason jerseys the team wore in 2014. His longtime assistant, and now current head coach, Greg Gard has kept the saying alive as he enters his fifth full year on the job. So it was no surprise that on the first day of actual full contact basketball activities since their season was cut short due to the coronavirus outbreak seven months ago, the Badgers were focused more on what’s in front of them than what they missed out on.
“We aren’t going to teleport back to March 7 and become that team right away,” Gard said. “We have to basically wipe the slate clean and we start over. We use those experiences and what it took for us to get there, but nothing is more important than the first drill of the day. We can’t get caught fast-forwarding our mind because we see how the approach to the every day process or the stick to the process mentality paid off for us.”
The last time fans saw the Badgers they were carrying the Big Ten trophy into the Kohl Center after a remarkable run that included eight straight wins to grab a share of the conference title — their first in five years. They were among the hottest teams in the country, the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament and a school that many felt could make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. All those hopes came crashing down days later with the conference tournament getting canceled and March Madness following soon after.
In the weeks after that, in an effort to fill a void, ESPN started running a simulated NCAA tournament and the Badgers won the national title. Some fans celebrated the fake championship on social media and t-shirts declaring them the 2020 national champions made the rounds. But that moment also proved to be a turning point for one of players on the team.
“I woke up and was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” guard Brad Davison said. “That kind of flipped my mindset. Alright, I’m done thinking about last year because we want to make that a reality. The only way we can do that is by flipping the switch to maximizing what’s in front of us.”
Davison said he’s not sure he’ll ever get over not having the chance to figure out what the rest of that season could hold, but the Badgers also know they have an opportunity to make another run with a very similar cast of characters. Sharpshooting Brevin Pritzl is gone and won’t be easily replaced, but they do return 79% of their scoring and could feature a starting lineup of five seniors. They also add a six-man recruiting class that features some talented players that could see the floor in their first year.
“We’re going to look at defining roles and finding where we fit and kind of putting the puzzle pieces together,” Davison said. “I kind of look at it like, yeah, we lost a piece of Brevin but also we have a whole new puzzle this year. We just have to make it work, put the pieces together and make the most beautiful picture we can make.”
Still, it’s a new year, something that Gard will hammer home as much as possible.
“When I started (Wednesday’s practice), after we stretched, it was nothing is more important than this first drill,” Gard told reporters. “We can’t get caught or consumed in what could happen down the road or what lies ahead, because if you don’t take care of today, that won’t come to the same fruition you want it to.”
It sounds like the players have been listening.
“We haven’t talked much about (not getting to finish last season) since we’ve been back,” guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “Really we’re focused on this season, we’re focused on getting better each and every day. We know there is a lot out there to get, and we know we’re going to be on a high pedestal coming into this season, ranked in the top-10 or whatnot. I’m super excited about that. I think the guys are super excited.
“We try not to look at last year, really. We know we had a lot of momentum last year, but it’s a new season and we’ve got to build that back up from the start.”
The outside expectations are significant for the Badgers. Various preseason polls have them in the top-10 in the country and they are considered to be among the contenders for not only a Big Ten title but also making a run to the program’s fifth Final Four. Inside, though, the expectations are the same this year as they have been for much of the last 20.
“We want to win the Big Ten regular season, we want to compete for the Big Ten tournament and want to make a run in March,” Davison said. e”Those are the same goals we make every year for the program because of the sustained success and tradition we have here at Wisconsin. That’s the standard, that’s the standard we want to live up to and the standard we want to continue to push forward.”