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Searching for positives in this Wisconsin basketball season

It’s not all bad?

NCAA Basketball: Chicago State at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

I’m a positive guy. At least, I try to be.

Throughout the 2017–18 Wisconsin men’s basketball season—so far, the Badgers are 11–16 overall, 4–10 in the Big Ten, and in all likelihood bound to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998—a flurry of negatives have engulfed this team.

Injuries to two key Badger guards, an underachieving class of 2015 that is seeing only two of five players contributing regularly, depending upon three current or former walk-ons for minutes—each factor has contributed to a disappointing season that in no way should put head coach Greg Gard in the hot seat.

And yet, there are positives. Light can be seen, however bleak, as Wisconsin nears the end of the tunnel of a disappointing season where expectations were low to begin with following the departure of four senior starters after last season and an unproven roster faced a tough non-conference schedule.

There are building blocks for next season already in place.

Ethan Happ

After a game-high 29 points plus seven rebounds in the loss to Michigan on Sunday—18 of those points came in the second half, when Wisconsin pushed a 25-point deficit down to seven late in the game—Happ continues to show why he’s All-American material.

He leads the team in points (18.2), rebounds (8.3), assists (3.9), blocks (.96), and steals (1.33) per game, the only major conference player to average at least 16 points, eight rebounds, and three assists.

Despite some turnover troubles as the main focal point of Wisconsin’s offense, Happ continues to play at a high level, scoring over 20 points in five of the last seven games.

Free throws continue to be an issue, but he has improved to 56.2 percent through 27 games after making 50 percent last year. After hitting five of seven from the charity stripe on Sunday, he has converted 36 of 57 attempts (63.1 percent) over the past seven games, closer to the numbers from his redshirt freshman campaign (64.3 percent). Take out the rough 8-for-19 performance from the line against Nebraska at home on Jan. 29, and Happ is 77.8 percent (28 of 36) in those other six games.

Wisconsin fans should not take Happ’s 2017–18 performance for granted, despite the gloom that’s associated with this team recently.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Nate Reuvers

Reuvers should be sitting and growing this season, but he has gone from green true freshman burning his redshirt vs. Milwaukee to starting the last 12 games and flashing his potential on a game-by-game basis. Through 22 games, he averages nearly six points and 2.3 rebounds. Despite only shooting 32.4 percent from three-point range, he has shown a touch from beyond the arc that should develop over time.

The young forward still needs to grow, and he will make mistakes (many freshmen do, of course), but Gard is still putting him out there night in and night out. That included combining with Alex Illikainen on containing Purdue’s Isaac Haas back on Jan. 16, one that drew praise from the Wisconsin head coach.

Wait for another offseason in the weight room for the Lakeville, Minn., native, who is listed at 6’10, 215 pounds in this week’s game notes, and see how his sophomore campaign and beyond stack up. With a returning and healthy Kobe King and Brad Davison (more on him later), the class of 2017 will leave its mark on Wisconsin basketball in the coming years.

Aleem Ford and his three-point shooting

The redshirt freshman, contributing early and often with 16 starts, is shooting 47.4 percent from three-point range. That leads Wisconsin and was third in the conference heading into Sunday’s match-up against Michigan.

After hitting one of his two long-range attempts against the Wolverines, Ford has now connected on 10 of 17 three-point attempts in the past four games.

Ford’s all-around game should continue to develop, and once again, a young player has an opportunity to progress further heading into next season.

One-armed Brad Davison still taking charges and putting up double-figures

The true freshman guard is the real-life version of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (#JustAFleshWound), playing with a left-shoulder injury and continuing to produce offensively and force turnovers with his charges.

With another 10 points on Sunday, he currently is averaging 11.3 points per contest an in admirable first season in Madison.

Not sure how much else you can say about his effort and determination through pain.

Lastly, a plea: Stop talking about Greg Gard on the hot seat/should be fired

This is directed to the very small amount of Wisconsin fans exhibiting a reprehensible hubris that Gard should be on the hot seat or fired for the blip in consistency seen in the program this season.

Other media covering Wisconsin basketball have discussed this already in columns or articles, so this is brief. There’s been a perfect storm: injuries at guard—showcasing how much sophomore D’Mitrik Trice meant to the team—older players not cracking the rotation and becoming consistent contributors, the sting in recruiting for the class of 2018 with the de-commitment of Tyler Herro late in the game and Joey Hauser joining his brother at Marquette.

Gard led the program to back-to-back Sweet 16 performances that were mere minutes—seconds—from being Elite Eight appearances. This after taking over in a tumultuous spot after Bo Ryan abruptly retired during, not after, the 2015-16 season.

If Wisconsin is in a similar position next season, that is an entirely different question and a justifiable one at that with where the program would be heading.

For now, there’s hope for a big turnaround to become NCAA tournament-bound next season, and there are still lessons and positives to be gained through the struggle, ones that will have to continue to be experienced the last four games of the regular season.