If you’re a freshman looking to play major minutes immediately, then Wisconsin may not necessarily be the school for you. While Bo Ryan has built one of the country’s top programs in Madison, he has always been a coach who prefers for his players to develop before being thrown into the fire. Sure, he’s had players like Nigel Hayes who stepped in and immediately played. But most of the time, players take the Frank Kaminsky path and wait their turn.
So which road will freshmen forward Alex Illikainen take? The Minnesota native has the tools to be an impact player sooner rather than later, and with Kaminsky and Sam Dekker having departed for the NBA, there are certainly minutes in the frontcourt available. At the same time, Wisconsin has a handful of big men who have been waiting their own turn in the wings for an opportunity to play. So how much of an impact will Illikainen have?
It’s tough to tell. Right now, the Badgers are expected to start redshirt junior Ethan Happ and junior Vitto Brown in the frontcourt. Neither of them has been touted as game-changers, but Brown showed some promise in limited time last season and Happ has good size at 6’9", 230 pounds. Still, both of them are bangers who don’t have the skillset that Illikainen brings to the table. For starters, Illikainen already has a solid body at 6’9" and 225 pounds. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The Minnesota native already has a postgame that is more polished than your typical college freshmen. That will be huge advantage for him, but at the same time, this is Wisconsin, where big men are expected to be able to shoot the ball.
This is where Illikainen really has to the chance to shine right away. The freshman has a smooth jump shot and solid range that will make him a threat from the outside. Having just lost Kaminsky, who shot 42 percent from behind the arc last season, the Badgers will need more players with the ability to space the floor. Nobody’s expecting Illikainen to show up on campus and immediately replace last season’s Naismith winner, but if he can come off the bench and hit a few threes, things will be looking very good for Wisconsin.
Here's a look at some of his highlights:
So on paper, Illikainen seems to be a perfect fit for the Badgers and a player who will make an impact right away. However, it’s not that simple. It’s not uncommon for players (even very talented ones) to go through growing pains their first year of college and that could be the case with the Minnesota native. In fact, some comments that Hayes made to Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal back in July seemed to hint at that.
"Right now Charlie is a little more ahead of him as far as confidence goes," Hayes said. "Alex is in that 'I don’t know what to do yet' freshman role where they don’t want to do too much or they haven’t really got the confidence in themselves that, ‘Yeah, I’m good enough to be here and play.’ He’ll be fine."
That’s an interesting statement, but as far as I’m concerned it’s nothing to get bent out of shape about. It’s not surprising to hear that a first-time college player is still searching for confidence during his first preseason camp. I’d expect Illikainen progresses enough throughout the season and becomes a solid option off the bench. And that’s only the beginning. If he keeps developing, the 6’9" forward has a chance to be a top player for the Badgers the next couple of seasons. As Hayes said, he’ll be fine.