MADISON -- Wisconsin men's basketball coach Greg Gard and forward Andy Van Vliet were both frustrated. This wasn't a pleasant conversation. And it wasn't the first. The one-on-one sessions last spring boiled down to the coach and the player not agreeing on much when Gard finally tried to put things in perspective.

 
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"I told him that if you were on a job right now, you'd probably be asked to leave the company," Gard said. "Or put on double probation."

Van Vliet's defense was bad. His footwork was worse. His overall commitment to being a Badger wasn't there either. Even his study and sleep habits -- Gard cares about all of that too -- were questioned. Gard presented an uncensored, unsoftened performance review to the then-sophomore and it was blunt.

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"I was mad. He basically pointed out everything I wasn't doing well," Van Vliet said.

There were times, especially in games, when Van Vliet sat sullenly as a uniformed observer and said: "I can do that." But he couldn't -- he was on the bench. And he thought that was ridiculous. He didn't come all the way from Belgium for this.

He toyed with the idea of leaving, going so to far as picking out a few colleges that looked promising to him. He thought he'd transfer and show Gard. Show us all.

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But something happened when Van Vliet walked out of that last springtime meeting with Gard. For a week, he couldn't stop thinking that Gard had nothing to gain from leveling with him. He wasn't the kind of coach to go on power trips. What if all he wanted was good things for the 7-footer?

"He was at a point in time where he had to hear the truth," Gard said. "He had to make a decision. It was either, 'These things were going to change -- or this probably wasn't the place for you.' "

"I kept thinking: he's right on that," Van Vliet said. "And, he's right on that...What if I start doing all those things...good?"

Van Vliet stopped looking at other schools. He went home and got to work, in Antwerp, Belgium.

That's where Van Vliet turned to a former youth basketball teammate, Stijn Van Herzeele, an up-and-coming performance coach and personal trainer. They worked out every day, but not on shooting. Instead they worked on Van Vliet's lower body strength and agility, a self-described weakness.

"All with the idea to help me move more," Van Vliet said.

"The main goal was to get his hips stable since he's not the most athletic guy," Van Herzeele said. "In my opinion, he was really not mobile or stable at all."

Van Herzeele was on campus last winter and got a first-hand look how UW strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland trained the athletes. With that background, Herzeele customized his own exercises for Van Vliet that he believed would strengthen his lower body movement, and the two got to work.

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And it was work: Front squats combined with jumps and resisted lateral footwork; split squats for full range of motion to stabilize his hip; low-intensity plyometrics to get his feet a little more reactive and core work in a variety of positions, including standing.

"He was willing to go 100% every training session," Van Herzeele said. "He was hungry and motivated to get to work and prepare for the upcoming season. We worked together almost every day and really tried to build a solid foundation before returning to Wisconsin.

"I believe his mental turnaround might have had the biggest impact."

Even without a basketball in his hands, Van Vliet could see gradual but steady progress,

"I'm still not where I want to be, but I can actually move on my feet now," Van Vliet said.

When Van Vliet returned to Wisconsin, Helland complimented the work.

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On Oct. 13, the Badgers officially kicked off the season and Gard was asked who on the team has made the most strides in the off-season?

"Well, Van Vliet. I don't have to think long about that," Gard said.

Van Vliet has worked hard, but he's just as inexperienced as his younger teammates. He's only played 48 minutes and scored 18 points last year. It's best to have reasonable expectations.

But he took the first, necessary steps.

"It's not like I'm expecting to average this, or average that," Van Vliet said. "I'm really just trying to go out there and have fun -- and prove to coach, and the staff, that I can play. And that they can trust me, in key moments, down the stretch."

For now, Gard is open to that. Time was running out on Van Vliet, and Gard respects the work he did.

"It's easy when you walk out of a meeting, all motivated after talking with coach. You're all fired up for about 24 hours," Gard said. "OK. What are you going to do for the next six months?

"It's a credit to him that he's taken it, processed it and looked in the mirror and said, these are the things I need to change. Everybody can identify what they need to change. It's a matter of going, and doing it. That's the hard part.

"I just had the conversation; then it was on him. He's done a terrific job."

This article is written by Lori Nickel from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.