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How Wisconsin's basketball recruiting created trouble for its 2015-16 roster

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Wisconsin is one of the most inexperienced teams in the country, a glaring departure from past years. A few of the roster's obvious weaknesses are the result of a couple lean years on the recruiting trail.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

As far as understatements go, saying it's been a hectic time for the Wisconsin men's basketball program is a colossal one. Bo Ryan's sudden retirement bequeathed the interim head coaching mantle to Greg Gard just as final exam week began for the players. And don't forget that last week started with Wisconsin officially releasing Riley Dearring to transfer at the semester break, leaving the Badgers with only eight healthy, eligible players who were scholarship recruits out of high school.

Not only did Ryan leave Gard with the opportunity to win UW's head coaching permanently, he also left him with a puzzling roster.

Five of the annually allotted 13 scholarships are tied up in former walk-ons or players who are unlikely to make an impact on his year's team. A sixth belongs to Jordan Hill, a redshirt sophomore still trying to crack the rotation. Hill has played two minutes in Wisconsin's last six games.

Starting shooting guard Zak Showalter was recruited as a preferred walk-on. When classmate Sam Dekker bolted to the NBA last spring, Wisconsin went out and signed Andy van Vliet, but another scholarship was handed to senior walk-on Jordan Smith this season rather than go unused. Smith benefited from the exact same scenario last season, when UW signed just one recruit (Ethan Happ).

The intriguing Van Vliet was ruled ineligible before the first game of the season, delivering an early blow to this year's team. Another promising freshman, Brevin Pritzl, remains out with a foot injury that could eventually cost him his freshman season.

Wisconsin is treading water at 7-5 as the non-conference season comes to a close Wednesday against Green Bay. The rotation goes seven or eight deep most games, playing three freshmen and no seniors.

How did this happen?

Four years ago, half of Wisconsin's 2011 recruiting class redshirted as freshmen. At a school like Wisconsin, that isn't outlandish. However, neither George Marshall nor Jarrod Uthoff stuck around for what would have been their final seasons in Madison this year. Showalter earned a permanent scholarship after Marshall left, but Wisconsin was unable to flip Uthoff's vacated scholarship into anything tangible until the 2013 class.

Marshall and Uthoff found soft landing spots elsewhere and Wisconsin thrived without them. Obviously both players could have helped the Badgers this season, but they aren't the cause of this year's problems.

Look no further than the 2012 recruiting cycle to find roots of the issue.

Bo Ryan and the coaching staff simply didn't come though in the 2012 class. With Sam Dekker secured early, Wisconsin had held its one remaining scholarship open for the athletic J.P. Tokoto of Menomonee Falls. Tokoto eventually chose North Carolina, but his decision in March of 2011 left the Badgers plenty of time to pursue other options for the following fall. While Uthoff's departure in the spring allowed for a late signee in that cycle as well, it was difficult enough finding a quality player for the opening the Badgers already had.

One puzzling situation involved Eron Harris, an Indianapolis-area shooting guard who is now eligible at Michigan State. Wisconsin seemingly had Harris' recruitment in the bag in the late summer after Tokoto's decision, yet the coaches had a change of heart and from all accounts, pulled the offer. Years later, a sharpshooting guard with some experience would be just what the doctor ordered for the 2015-16 Badgers. Whether the coaches simply realized he was not a good fit for UW or something else happened, Harris committed to West Virginia in October of 2011, fired a ton of shots in two seasons, then transferred to East Lansing.

Adam Woodbury, the Iowa center whom Wisconsin also recruited in Dekker's class, committed around the same time Harris did. The following spring, UW missed on Sheldon Jeter out of Pittsburgh.

None of these recruits were McDonald's All-Americans but they could have been pieces that helped shore up this year's roster.

* * *

Not all of the blame can be placed on the coaching staff, though. Sometimes the timing just sucks.

Top-heavy classes in Wisconsin and Iowa had very few division one prospects in 2012, while Ohio, another emerging recruiting territory for the Badgers, was short on depth as well. The talent in neighboring states Minnesota and Illinois was the absolute worst in recent memory. That hurt a Wisconsin program that does well in those states, not to mention the Gophers and Illini, too -- look at the standings. Ironically, Indiana was flush with talent in the 2012 class; alas, the Badgers have never recruited the Hoosier state well and do not waste effort there.

Other factors from the past are also at play when discussing roster management. Take, for instance, the unusual double-whammy from Josh Gasser and Duje Dukan during the 2012-13 season when the pair of juniors took medical redshirts. Those two scholarships transferred to the large 2015 class this season rather than being used to bring in more 2014 recruits alongside Happ. Would an extra sophomore or two be more useful to Gard this season than five freshmen, two of whom may not see the court at all this year?

Of course, the upside to Gasser's and Dukan's misfortune was well worth it -- their extra season produced a memorable run to the NCAA tournament championship game.

Without getting sucked too deep into a hypothetical recruiting rabbit hole, the big gaps on this year's roster are a scoring guard, guard depth and an experienced big man. The departures of Marshall and Uthoff from the 2011 class and a dearth of high school talent in 2012 combined with some recruiting misfires in 2012, 2013 and 2014 have hurt the program in exactly those areas.

On its own, any one of these factors is obvious and surmountable. Together, they represent a missed opportunity to build onto the apex of Ryan's success at Wisconsin.

A popular question for Badger fans to ponder has always been this: would you trade the astonishing consistency of annual NCAA tournament appearances and top 4 Big Ten finishes under Bo Ryan for an NCAA title or a couple of Final Fours? It appeared Wisconsin finally had achieved the best of both worlds in the last few seasons. Yet the reality is that any program not bringing in swaths of one-and-done freshmen is going to fall back to earth after losing as much as Wisconsin did from last year's team. What we are learning is that it was arrogant to assume the Badgers were immune to that reality, even with Ryan still at the wheel.

Now Greg Gard is in command, the players at his disposal as much a product of his recruiting efforts as Ryan's. Badger nation eagerly awaits Gard's debut to see if he plays his hand any differently than Ryan did.