MADISON, WI - JANUARY 09: Head Coach Greg Gard of the Wisconsin Badgers watches from the sidelines during the first half against the Maryland Terrapins at Kohl Center on January 09, 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

Gard’s coaching gives reason for optimism in difficult stretch for Badgers

Crushing defeats are getting old for the Wisconsin Badgers basketball program.

Losing the last two contests by one possession each, and having five home losses by a combined 14 points as well.

It all adds up to a fanbase rightly frustrated at a program that has gone from national championship game to barely .500 in a span of one season.

However, there is reason for optimism amongst the angst and frustration. That reason is the fact that Wisconsin is going through the toughest stretch of its Big Ten schedule and playing the top of the conference as tough as possible.

It’s also hard not to harken back to a different sport for UW — football. Bringing back the 2008 season may also bring up your lunch, but the parallels are unavoidable.

A young and inexperienced team took on one of the most difficult stretches in Big Ten play and paid for it. UW entered Big Ten play 3-0, but that was against a really awful schedule and the house of cards came tumbling down from there.

The Badgers suffered losses to Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa, leaving them reeling entering a home game against Illinois. Instead of folding after difficult times and close games, Wisconsin won 27-17 over the Illini and the season finished with seven wins.

A win over Illinois normally isn’t something to write home about, but it was a win following crushing defeat after crushing defeat. Some teams would have just packed in the season — not Bielema’s Badgers.

Some would say this basketball season is also on the verge of the exact same feeling. Wins need to come, and come soon, but only heart-breaking losses are being strung together.

Wisconsin sit just 1-3 in Big Ten play and its lone win is against one of the worst teams in college basketball right now — Rutgers. The lone “signature” win over a ranked Syracuse team in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge doesn’t outweigh losses to Western Illinois or Milwaukee in non-conference play to say the least.

Wisconsin simply has done nothing to impress by the record book. However, this team also has played Purdue, Indiana (on the road) and Maryland and lost by a combined 10 points.

Given how this team looked heading in to conference play, few believed the Badgers would hang within 10 points of any one of these opponents. However, that has been the exact opposite.

Somehow, Wisconsin has fought through some downright ugly moments and been in each of the last two games.

This team, under Gard, is fighting and battling till the end. UW’s players and coaches have something good going on right now. Simply put, this team is better today in five games under Gard than it was through 12 games under Bo Ryan.

Credit to Gard for going back to a more structured swing-style offense, but also credit the players who have turned it up a notch or ten on the defensive end of the court.

There’s no game as better proof of the improvement on defense than the effort against No. 3 Maryland.

Maryland shot 59.3 percent in the opening half but that dipped to 42.9 percent after halftime. The Terps, who entered the day averaging 79.5 points per game, were held to their lowest point total of the season.

Sliver of hope in another loss? Sure, but it is also hard to ignore the fact that this team is doing things it wasn’t before Bo Ryan’s surprise retirement.

Does the early season version of the Badgers even come close to that defensive effort? No.

It’s all part of a change internally with this team. Rather than harping on the bad from game to game, Gard finds himself also highlighting the positives for a change.

“I don’t show just things that we make mistakes on,” Gard said. “I show things where we’ve done things pretty well and those things are starting to show more and more.

“I’m finding more of those things and less of things that are negative.”

No doubt the wins need to come for Gard to go from interim to permanent head coach and for the Badgers to make the NCAA tournament.

That said, these close losses and difficult situations in January could turn in to close wins and less stressful situations by February. If so, we’re likely to look back at this stretch as the moment this team grew.

It also appears that the man in charge knows exactly what is expected.

“We’re not anywhere near where we can be yet,” Gard said. “I think that is what has everybody so excited and understanding that as long as we continue to push forward we’ll be in the right position.”

So does the team full of youth he puts out on a game-by-game basis.

As long as those words turn in to action, you can stamp this difficult run as exactly what was needed to get them over the hump.

It will all start with a tough test against a Northwestern team that is 14-3 and 2-2 in Big Ten play. Win on the road and UW may just be turning a corner after all.

Andrew Coppens

About Andrew Coppens

Andy is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He is the Managing Editor of MadTownBadger and associate editor of Bloguin's World Cup site, as well as Publisher of Big Ten site