MADISON — Wednesday was National Signing Day and for the first time in a while University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Greg Gard had good news for Badgers fans.
Lots of good news.
UW signed five scholarship players — twin wings Johnny and Jordan Davis from La Crosse, big men Ben Carlson and Steven Crowl from the Twin Cities area and point guard Lorne Bowman from the Detroit area — in a class that ranks in the top 15 or 20 nationally not because it has a marquee name but because it has a good mix of quality and depth. The class also will include Hartland Arrowhead wing Carter Gilmore, who turned down scholarship offers to walk on at UW.
Combine those six with the three players UW already has committed for next year’s recruiting class — point guard Chucky Hepburn of Nebraska and forwards Matthew Mors of South Dakota and Chris Hodges of the Chicago area — and a pattern is starting to emerge.
After years of uneven recruiting in which UW seemed to swing and miss on high-level recruits, then battle from behind to fill out classes, Gard and his staff have turned the tables by getting ahead of the game once again.
Until Wednesday, the impressive 2017 class of Brad Davison, Kobe King and Nate Reuvers was the exception under Gard. The 2020 and 2021 groups indicate such classes could be the rule going forward.
Most of all, this year’s class shows Gard has found a recruiting formula that works for the program. Guess what? It looks a lot like the formula used so successfully by former coach Bo Ryan for 15 years, with Gard as his chief recruiter.
The reality of college basketball in 2019 tells us UW will never make a living going head-to-head with Duke and Kentucky for 5-star players. Sure, when 5-stars such as Brian Butch and Sam Dekker come along and show loyalty to the state school, it’s a great thing. But such loyalty is in short supply among recruits these days, as we in Wisconsin have seen with Kevon Looney, Diamond Stone, Tyler Herro and Jalen Johnson, who recently committed to Duke.
Instead of spending his capital in futile pursuit of the 25 to 30 recruits with 5-star designations every year, Gard simply needs to get back to doing what UW did until its “get old, stay old” philosophy was disrupted in recent years. He needs to recruit players from the next group, the 4-stars and 3-stars who rank in the top 150 to 175 on national recruiting lists and — this is important — who have the potential to develop into high-quality Big Ten Conference players at some point in their careers.
Too often in recent years UW has been forced to settle for players who didn’t have much room for growth or weren’t fits for the program, with predictable results. Now, the coaches are identifying players who will be good fits earlier, getting them on campus earlier (in part due to a rule change that allows juniors to take official visits) and getting them committed earlier.
In this year’s class, Carlson is a consensus 4-star recruit, Johnny Davis and Bowman are 3-star or 4-star players depending on the recruiting website and Crowl is a 3-star. Carlson is 81st in 247sports.com ’s composite rankings, with Davis 145th, Bowman 157th and Crowl 170th. Although not as highly regarded as his brother, Jordan Davis has potential as a 3-and-D player.
In next year’s class, Mors is ranked 114th, Hepburn 138th and Hodges 141st. Those are subject to change, but it’s clear where UW is headed. The Badgers are bringing in players with upside and character who will work hard and develop into highly competitive players.
I can already hear critics barking about how UW isn’t trying to compete for national titles if it doesn’t recruit 5-star players, especially with the number of them produced in the state lately. However, expecting UW to consistently win recruiting battles in that high-end market is pie-in-the-sky thinking. Only a handful of schools can routinely succeed in that market and you know their names.
Still, some insist on judging Gard based on his inability to build a wall around Wisconsin and retain its 5-star players. The truth is, keeping elite players at home isn’t a UW problem, it’s a problem everywhere.
Minnesota has produced four consensus 5-star players since 2014 and all four went to Duke. The Chicago area has produced five consensus 5-star players since Anthony Davis in 2011; Duke landed two and Kentucky, Kansas and Villanova each got one.
Big-time basketball recruiting has become an unholy alliance created by the NBA’s one-and-done rule, under-the-table shoe-company money and the combination of social media and summer-basketball travel shrinking the world for recruits. That has greatly eroded quaint notions such as home-state loyalty.
Even prep players have become basketball mercenaries. Johnson, a senior, is on his third high school in three years, this one in Florida. Another 5-star player, Michael Foster, left Milwaukee Washington for a prep school in Arizona.
Those who complain about Gard not getting 5-star players are judging him based on an outdated recruiting model. That’s not to say UW shouldn’t pursue such players when they’re nearby — indeed, Gard made a solid run at Johnson — but it does say Gard has settled on a recruiting approach that fits UW and it’s starting to pay off.