Wisconsin takes trip Down Under with team in transition
MADISON -- At some point on Saturday on a plane flying over the Pacific Ocean, Wisconsin coach Greg Gard will settle into his seat to watch scouting video from a laptop computer.
No better way to help fill the time on a 16-hour flight to New Zealand for the Badgers basketball team.
"I think I got plenty of time to read a handbook, watch videos, do a lot of things," Gard joked.
The NCAA allows schools to go on foreign exhibition tours every four years, an excursion that gives teams 10 practices to prepare for the summer games. It is precious time for coaches and players to work together on and off the court, tasks that otherwise couldn't start until October.
The last time the Badgers took an international trip, they had a pretty good season.
The program four summers ago played in Canada at a time when the team was also replacing most of its starting lineup. Less experienced players and future stars like Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, along with then-freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, got their first taste of playing together as a team.
Seven months later, they made a run to their first of back-to-back Final Four appearances.
Then-coach Bo Ryan "always talked about how much that trip helped," said fifth-year senior Aaron Moesch, who was redshirted in 2013-14. The reserve forward is also the only player who was on the roster for both Final Four teams.
"Correlation doesn't mean causation," Moesch added before practice on Wednesday in Madison. "But there's definitely something to be said about having those extra games, especially with a young team."
Similarly, this five-game, 12-day tour to New Zealand and Australia comes after the program lost four senior starters in Hayes, Koenig, forward Vitto Brown and guard Zak Showalter. The roster has been replenished with a decorated recruiting class, including freshman guard Kobe King, a unanimous selection as Wisconsin's state prep player of the year.
Practices so far have been energetic. Returnees will assume new responsibilities, and everyone is feeling out their respective roles.
"That's what has been nice about this summer -- we've covered things normally you don't cover until October and November. Terminology, scheme, philosophy, specifically the defensive end of things," Gard said. "I'm excited for these guys to put all that knowledge and work they've committed to do, to work over there and see what happens."
Big man Ethan Happ is one of the holdovers on the team whose role will expand this season. The 6-foot-10 junior with the dominating post game might become an even bigger focal point of the offense with Hayes and Koenig gone.
Happ will use the trip to New Zealand and Australia to continue working on skills that he has focused on this offseason, including his outside shot, as well as ball-handling and decreasing turnovers.
"Then as a team basically just see who's ready and willing to work on the floor," Happ said. "It's easy to do in practice, but it's a lot different when the lights are on. It'll be interesting to see who steps up."