'We're Hungry': Wisconsin Assistant Dean Oliver on 2019-20 Team, What's Ahead
Like many parents during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dean Oliver has juggled his work duties with helping his children with their homework.
The Wisconsin assistant coach has enjoyed family time, but one could say he has picked up a thing or two himself while trying to dish out assists of the educational variety to his kids.
"I've also learned that they've changed the way that they teach a lot of math subjects," Oliver told AllBadgers.com last Thursday. "My son has asked me to help with some things, and the way I'm helping him, it's not the way they teach. I think they're way more advanced now than where I was at his age because some of the problems I definitely couldn't do."
Oliver ended that last sentence with a laugh, then stated, "it's been good." He, like many, have adjusted during the two-plus months of the pandemic. At the time when the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments were respectively canceled on March 12, Wisconsin was about to head to Indianapolis riding an eight-game winning streak that led to the program claiming a share of the conference regular season championship and the No. 1 seed in the former event.
Since then, he has had time to reflect on a season where the team fought through trials both on and off the court. Before the preseason workouts even began, a car accident in late May 2019 claimed the lives of assistant coach Howard Moore's wife, Jennifer, and daughter, Jaidyn. Moore was injured in the crash, and in July it was announced that he would move to a long-term rehab facility after an incident where he suffered cardiac arrest.
On the floor, the Badgers worked through Micah Potter's eligibility battle with the NCAA, Kobe King leaving the program in late January, and strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland resigning in early February when it was learned that he used a racial epiphet when recalling a story from his NBA career in the presence of players.
Despite that and falling to .500 in conference play in early February after a loss at Minnesota, Wisconsin finished the year with a 21-10 record, a 14-6 mark in the Big Ten. The more Oliver thinks about it, the more he is proud of the players and how they handled everything that they went through.
"You look at all the things that happened, what could have went wrong and how they could have reacted and how they did, and it's just amazing to finish the season as tied for regular season champs," Oliver said. "The list goes on and on with each individual player and how they developed. It's really impressive, but also there's a lot of fuel for the fire going forward for next year.
"It just kind of left us hanging."
Oliver compared the team to watching the episodes of ESPN's 30 for 30 series "The Last Dance," where one is ready to watch the next installment.
"We finished the season, but it didn't finish," Oliver said. "It's kind of like a cliffhanger at the end of the season the way it ended because I think we were just starting to hit our stride, and we hadn't peaked yet. I think the guys are hungry and ready for next year."
During their time away from campus due to the pandemic, Oliver noted how the players continue to maintain their closeness with each other. They interact via a variety of ways that include Zoom, texts and group texts. Sometimes that is with the coaching staff, sometimes without.
"They can't wait to get back together so they get on Zoom, and they act a fool on there," Oliver said. "We jump on as coaches every now and then with them as much as we can bear because they're going to make fun of us the whole time and vice versa. It's good.
"It's a time where guys are trying to find ways to get better, and you're just so limited in what you can do. But guys have been doing everything possible. I tell you what, there's gonna be a lot of good ball handlers. I don't know about shooting, but there's going to be a lot of good ball handlers next year with all the ball handling workouts that they've been doing."
Oliver also noted how guard D'Mitrik Trice sends him videos of what he is working on in terms of drill, calling him "religious" in that respect.
"I think sometimes I wonder if this is his favorite part of the year is the offseason where he's working, but he's really gotten after it," Oliver said.
Oliver also mentioned that fellow assistant coach Alando Tucker has been making videos pertaining to ball handling in giving the team some new things to do and "try to keep it fresh."
For next season, Wisconsin will return Trice, Brad Davison and Trevor Anderson at the guard spots. When asked what the next steps are as a group or individually to make their senior years their best, Oliver answered from a broader perspective.
In his eyes, they have been in more of an underdog role. Coming into next year, he believes there will be more of a target on the Badgers' backs.
"The standard's been set, obviously, with how we played this past season, but how do you respond when everyone's gunning for you?," Oliver said. "I think it's a different scenario, different situation next season, and can you still stay connected? You have all these guys with aspirations to play after college, and when times are tight, are you going to be able to stay together in the tough times because there are going to be some tough times when everyone's gunning for you next year? We handled it great this past season, can we do it again?"
Again, Oliver referenced the ESPN series he and many have been watching. He admitted the differences, noting the Badgers are obviously not at the level of those Chicago Bulls. UW won just one championship instead of three straight like the legendary NBA franchise from 1996-98. For that matter, Wisconsin tied for a Big Ten regular season championship with Maryland and Michigan State. Will they be able to stay together and continue their previous progress when others are trying to knock them off the pedestal?
"I think we will be able to because we didn't get to finish this year," Oliver said. "Again, that taste in our mouth -- it's like you're getting ready to eat some ice cream and someone took it away from you.
"We're hungry. We want it, and I think the guys are ready for that, and I'm real excited to get back going here and get back to work."