PHILADELPHIA -- This is Greg Gard's Wisconsin team in the Sweet 16, but even the magnitude of the stage couldn't save the Badgers' head coach from being peppered with questions Thursday about the last man in his position, longtime head coach Bo Ryan.
Gard, a former Ryan assistant who stepped in as interim coach when Ryan abruptly retired in December, was calm and graceful while answering multiple queries about his old boss despite his team's do-or-die matchup with Notre Dame looming slightly more than 24 hours away. Gard kept cool even as a reporter asked him whether he feels he's earned the full-time job, even though he officially signed on as the new head coach earlier this month.
"I always had a one-year contract. I thought, wow, I saw five years on that thing, where do I sign?" Gard cracked.
Gard later joked the removal of the interim tag was "the best loss we had all year."
Still, the new coach didn't deny that the aura of the old coach still remains among Badger basketball. They did work together for more than 20 years, after all.
"Obviously he's been a huge part of not only the University of Wisconsin's basketball program but the fabric of basketball within the state of Wisconsin," Gard said. "â€¦ He's on the Mount Rushmore of basketball in the state of Wisconsin. Obviously I'm indebted to him. He saw a young college kid 25 years ago or 23 years ago and said, 'Hey, do you want to get into this profession?' And I did at the time and he gave me a great opportunity, and obviously I'm very fortunate and appreciative of that."
Notre Dame junior forward V.J. Beachem revealed earlier this week that he is a former teammate of Wisconsin's star forward Nigel Hayes on an Ohio-based AAU team.
The two exchanged text messages last week during the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, knowing the possibility of facing off down the road.
"I just told him, 'Meet me in Philly,'" Beachem said Tuesday, adding communications ceased this week. "They took care of their end, we did too."
During Thursday's press conference at Wells Fargo Center said he planned to visit Notre Dame's locker room to reconnect with Beachem.
"If that causes any trouble, I've got my guys with me," said Hayes, flanked by teammates Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ. "We'll settle that quickly."
Hayes said he and Beachem formed a winning duo during their time together, and remembered how much fun Beachem's family was.
"It's still great that we were able to stay in contact with one another," Hayes said. "He eventually left to go back to a program in his home state -- but he got his basketball skills from when he played with the Ohio team. So just remember that."
NEXT IN LINE
Wisconsin center Ethan Happ has developed into a solid low post threat, averaging more than 12 points and seven rebounds per game. And much of his growth can be attributed to the guy he replaced, former All-American and eventual first-round NBA draft pick Frank Kaminski.
Gard recalled how Happ, during his redshirt season last year, would get under Kaminski's skin with over-the-top intensity at practice and the occasional hard foul.
"I owe a lot of my game to Frank, whether it's him verbally telling me what to do or me just learning from experience playing against him," Happ said. "I've learned a lot of moves from him. â€¦ And having Frank to go against, the best player in the country last year, all year long was something special and I think redshirting was the best decision. And I think I wouldn't have been able to play against him every day in practice if I hadn't done that."
SIGNS OF AGE
Senior center Zach Auguste is far and away the most demonstrative player on Notre Dame's roster. His on-floor disposition is as intense as his 6-foot-10 frame, complete with a blonde-dyed mohawk, is intimidating.
It wasn't until the back side of his tenure with the Irish that the Massachusetts native could channel his emotions positively. Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey told the story of a young Auguste who got frustrated in practice on day, punched the base of the hoop and broke his hand.
"And that was the ultimate of, 'Can you just take a deep breath?'" Brey said. "And I think it just comes with growing up and getting older and being very coachable."
The launch point of Auguste's newfound maturity came after last season when Notre Dame coaches showed him a compilation of occurrences where his emotions got out of line.
"We put a bunch of clips together from the past games, some practice where I had some bad body language," Auguste said. "I let my frustration get the best of me. You see my body language after certain plays and really just watching that really helped that way I can see because sometimes you can't really notice it until you can see."
Of course, the Irish don't want Auguste to be stone-faced on the floor. That fiery passion remains a critical piece of his game.
"I draw from it. I draw from the crowd as well. I love playing with high energy," Auguste said. "I try to rub it off a little bit on my teammates. They play high energy as well, and that kind of rubs off on me. So just really that high level of energy and passion and emotion is what I feed off of when playing basketball."
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