No. 9 Wisconsin looks for fast start under Gard

Greg Gard does not have rebuilding to tackle during his first full-time season as the head coach of the Wisconsin men's basketball team.

Gard took over as interim head coach when Bo Ryan abruptly quit last season after 12 games. An assistant to Ryan for 14 years at Wisconsin, Gard had the interim tag stripped from his job title in March with a five-year contract.

The ninth-ranked Badgers begin the regular season with a four-game home slate on Friday when they host Central Arkansas at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis.

Wisconsin returns its entire starting lineup and 99 percent of offense from a team that finished 22-13 overall and reached the NCAA Sweet 16.

The roster boasts four starting seasons, including forward Nigel Hayes, who was named the Big Ten Conference preseason player of the year. Hayes averaged 15.7 points and 3.0 assists per game during his junior campaign.

Gard said Hayes' maturity, along with experience of other veterans, will be impactful to begin the season. Wisconsin lost its season opener in 2015-16, and six games in total before Ryan's departure.

“They had to dig themselves from (out of) a hole and mature and grow,” Gard said. “They understood how important the process is and how the everyday of it goes.

“It helps when you have a mature group. When you have four seniors leading the way … your best-coached teams are always your player-coached teams. This group has taken on a leadership and ownership of that locker room.”

The Badgers also will lean heavily on senior guard Bronson Koenig for his 3-point prowess, and redshirt sophomore forward Ethan Happ for attacking the boards. Koenig contributed 13.1 points per game and shot 39 percent from 3-point range as a junior, while Happ led the team in rebounding with 7.9 rebounds per contest. Happ averaged 12.4 points and 1.8 steals per game.

Senior guard Zak Showalter and senior forward Vitto Brown also bring a wealth of experience to Wisconsin's starting lineup.

The Badgers are fresh off a secret scrimmage at Northern Iowa on Nov. 5, which gave freshmen the opportunity to participate in a game-week preparation, complete with a scouting report on the Panthers. The event marked the second year that the two teams played a scrimmage that was closed to the media.

Unlike Wisconsin, rebuilding is a priority for Central Arkansas.

The Bears, members of the Southland Conference, posted a 7-21 overall record, an improvement from the 2014-15 season when Central Arkansas won just two games. Russ Pennell, a former Bears player, starts his third season at the coaching helm.

The offense will run through Bears guard Jordan Howard, who averaged 20.2 points per game last season. Howard is joined by guard Derreck Brooks (12.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Mathieu Kamba (10.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg).

Pennell said he hopes to build depth and improvement on defense with more options off the bench, after four players redshirted last season. He said he likes the Bears' competitiveness in practices.

“We can go different ways (with lineups) because most of our guys are multi-position,” Pennell said. “We can mix and match, and that's the thing I like. I just believe that we will be able to keep quality players on the floor the entire game.”