After long day, Badgers coach Greg Gard receives call from mentor and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo

After long day, Badgers coach Greg Gard receives call from mentor and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo

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At the end of what had been a long, frustrating day, University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Greg Gard received a phone call Wednesday night from a man he considers one of his mentors in the business.

Gard wouldn’t reveal the specifics of that conversation during a news conference the following day, but it’s safe to say the caller was offering support to someone who clearly needed it at the time.

That it was Michigan State’s Tom Izzo on the other end of the line isn’t surprising. He and Gard have been tight for years.

But the timing was interesting, nonetheless: Gard and the Badgers (12-9, 5-5 Big Ten) will close a tumultuous week by hosting Izzo’s No. 14 Spartans (16-5, 8-2) on Saturday at the Kohl Center.

Not only is UW coming off back-to-back defeats on the road, it has lost eight consecutive times to Michigan State.

Oh, and the Badgers will try to end those streaks with a shorthanded lineup. Hours after sophomore wing Kobe King announced he was leaving the program on Wednesday, the Big Ten Conference handed down a one-game suspension to UW junior guard Brad Davison.

That leaves UW with seven scholarship players for the game against the Spartans. Included in that mix is junior forward Micah Potter, who was injured late in the Badgers’ 68-62 loss at Iowa on Monday night but is apparently OK to play against Michigan State.

It’s no wonder Izzo felt compelled to reach out to Gard, who on Thursday tried to offer perspective on what seems like a once-promising season slipping away.

“You go through a season one day at a time and you keep trying to get better every day,” Gard said. “That’s why sports are such a great teacher of life, because you have to go through ups and downs and adversity and there’s times when things are going to go your way and there’s times when you feel like, are you the windshield or are you the bug?”

Gard was encouraged by the fight the Badgers showed at Iowa, especially considering King had told coaches and players two days earlier that he was leaving the program. Losing King, who led the Badgers with 12.6 points per game in Big Ten play, is a huge blow to a UW offense that struggled with consistency even with him in the lineup.

“It’s just about playing our game, you know?” fifth-year senior guard Brevin Pritzl said. “The guys that we have that are still here, it’s going to be a loss missing Kobe and what he brought to the table for us, but that’s on us to come together as a team and make up for what isn’t there. It’s really just comes down to sticking with each other, uniting, and playing with that same intensity and fire that we show.”

As the program was still coming to grips with King’s departure, it learned Davison had been suspended for what the conference called a “pattern of similar behavior” that included a Flagrant 1 foul late in the Iowa game.

That leaves the Badgers with three scholarship guards: Pritzl, junior D’Mitrik Trice and junior Trevor Anderson. Walk-on Walt McGrory may figure into the backcourt rotation.

Perhaps Gard can inspire his team with a history lesson before the game. The Badgers had lost four of their first six games under Gard after he took over for Bo Ryan midway through the 2015-16 season, but a home win over No. 4 Michigan State began a stretch that included 11 wins in 12 games for UW.

The bad news? That upset was the last time the Badgers have beaten the Spartans, a skid that includes a pair of single-digit decisions at the Kohl Center.

A victory over Michigan State this time seems even more improbable considering UW is down two starters from the lineup that was beaten soundly by the Spartans in East Lansing two weeks ago.

“I think the coaches did a good job, even after Kobe’s announcement came out to the team, the coaches instilled confidence into the rest of the team, the team that was still here and the players that were playing at the time,” Trice said. “I think that really carried into the (Iowa) game. Played a little bit more confident, a little bit more free, and I think that’s when we started playing like we know how to play and we were clicking on all cylinders.

“I think that’s where the coaches have got to continue to work on, instilling that confidence into the guys that are here and the guys that are playing. I think that is a huge motivator for us going into Saturday, that even with the guys that we have that we can make a run and an impact.”

King update

UW will reach out to King for an exit interview of sorts at some point, according to senior associate athletic director for external communications Justin Doherty.

A day earlier, the former Mr. Basketball out of La Crosse Central told the State Journal his primary reason for leaving was how King and other teammates were talked to by Gard. King, who declined to go into specifics, also said he’s not the only one on the team who is frustrated.

UW athletic director Barry Alvarez on Friday morning declined an interview request from the State Journal regarding the King situation. Later in the day, following a closed session to end a UW Athletic Board meeting at Camp Randall Stadium’s Heritage Hall, Alvarez quickly left the room before reporters had a chance to approach him.

“I think every situation, when a student-athlete leaves the university or leave the program, every situation is different and has its own set of circumstances around it,” Doherty said. “Our philosophy here, our approach here, has always been that we want what’s best for the student-athletes and in this case, if a student-athlete feels it’s in their best interest to leave at a given time, then they need to do what’s best for them and from our standpoint, we support them in terms of helping them in that transition.”


Preview: Badgers vs. No. 14 Michigan State

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