Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein can relate to Wisconsin’s problems last season
ROSEMONT, Ill. — On more than one occasion last season, John Beilein offered kind words and a history lesson to University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Greg Gard.
A young roster and two key injuries played a role in the Badgers’ worst season in two decades. By the time it was over, UW had gone 15-18 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
Watching it play out from afar was Beilein, the coach at Michigan. He’d seen this movie; in fact, he’d lived it.
Three years earlier, the Wolverines finished with a 16-16 mark and missed the postseason a year after winning the Big Ten Conference regular-season title and falling one victory short of its second consecutive trip to the Final Four. Michigan began the 2014-15 season with loads of inexperience after underclassmen Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary left for the NBA, and the lineup became even more depleted when starters Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton went down with season-ending injuries.
A similar situation played out at UW last season. A roster that was green following the departure of a decorated senior class led by Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig took a hit in December when D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King were lost with season-ending injuries.
“What happened to them was the same thing that happened to us,” Beilein said Thursday at Big Ten Media Day. “It is what it is, and you can’t do anything about it except embrace it and say, ‘This is going to make us better in the years to come.’ ”
That was certainly the case at Michigan, which bounced back from the 2014-15 season by returning to the NCAA tournament the next year. One of the freshmen on that 16-16 team, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, played a key role in the run to the national title game last March.
Gard and Co. are hoping for a similar bounceback experience. The Badgers return their top nine scorers from last season, a group led by senior center Ethan Happ and sophomore guard Brad Davison.
Trice (foot) and King (knee) have been full-go during preseason practices, which began two weeks ago. Davison, who had surgery to repair an injured left shoulder that plagued him throughout his debut season with the Badgers, also is healthy.
Clearly, some skepticism exists about whether last season was an aberration for UW, a perennial top-four finisher in the Big Ten until last season, or the first step in the program’s decline. The Badgers were picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten in a preseason poll of 28 media members who cover the conference, with one voter picking UW as high as second and two predicting a ninth-place showing.
Gard was asked Thursday if this season offers a fresh start for his program.
“You learn from those experiences, you grow from them, you improve upon them and you quickly move on,” he said. “We’re better because of it. And now we’ve turned the calendar. We’re on to ’18-’19.
“I’m excited for our guys, just to see how they can use their experiences that they’ve gained to take a step forward and to be an older, more mature team, a team that understands what it takes.”
Gard said he saw a fire in his players during the offseason. That mindset has continued into preseason drills, according to Happ.
“You can definitely feel how we ended last year and the year as a whole and how it carried over into practices,” Happ said. “You can just tell how hungry this team is.
“Every team wants to play games, but we want another opportunity, almost redemption.”
Beilein, whose team is picked to finish second in the Big Ten behind defending champion Michigan State, said he believes the Badgers will respond to a down season the same way the Wolverines did three years ago.
“That was a long year for everybody in Wisconsin by their standards,” Beilein said. “At the same time, they should be happy as hell. They got through it, the worst is over.
“Watch them. I think they’re going to be a great, great team in the Big Ten.”
Happ was a unanimous selection on the preseason All-Big Ten team.
Purdue junior guard Carsen Edwards was named preseason player of the year. Edwards got 22 votes, while Happ came in second with four votes.
Edwards and Happ were joined on the team by Nebraska senior guard James Palmer Jr., Michigan State junior guard Cassius Winston and Indiana senior forward Juwan Morgan.