What Wisconsin accomplishes this season likely hinges on its superstars (Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ). They’ll determine how high the ceiling is, but the role players, and in particular, the bench have a big responsibility. Hayes and Koenig know all too well what impact role players can have on a team with Final Four aspirations.
Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown will play key roles; I want to focus on the bench, though. Greg Gard seems to be tinkering with the rotation. Alex Illikainen, has played less than 10 minutes the last five games. (And, he didn’t play against Marquette.) Even Jordan Hill, who was a tremendous spark off the bench last season, has seen reduced minutes as a junior (playing six fewer minutes a game this year), and like Illikainen, Hill didn’t see action in the Marquette game.
What’s left is a young, somewhat untested group, but the early returns have been good. Let’s take a closer look at the other three bench contributors.
Perhaps Trice has taken some of Hill’s minutes this year. Hill might offer a little more razzle-dazzle, and energy, at least last year he did, but Trice has been a steady hand and a reliable backup point guard, to spell Koenig. Obviously, he’s known as the brother of Michigan State star Travis Trice, but D’Mitrik will make a name for himself before his time is up in Madison.
As a freshman, Trice is picking his spots offensively. His discerning shot selection is evident in the statistics (48 percent from the floor, 60 percent from three, 14-for-23), and more importantly, he’s not turning the ball over, less than one per game.
Gard is rewarding him with valuable bench time, and Trice has played more than 20 minutes in four of the team’s last five games. Watching him become more and more confident has been fun, and he figures to be important going forward.
Iverson’s an interesting wrinkle for Wisconsin. He’s such an explosive athlete; he can bend the defense in a different way. Yet to completely develop the other parts of his game, like his jumper, he’s dangerous in the open floor and above the rim.
Pretty amazingly, Iverson is shooting 68 percent from the floor (averaging 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game). I guess it’s not that amazing considering so many of his shots are dunks and layups.
Iverson’s a great bench weapon, because as long as he plays under control and doesn’t turn the ball over, Gard can unleash him on second units that have to be concerned with his athleticism. It also helps that he rebounds better than his size might suggest, which helps if Wisconsin needs to go smaller.
Charlie Thomas IV
Thomas is actually averaging fewer minutes per game than Illikainen and Hill, but he might be a critical piece off the bench. Because Wisconsin really plays three big guys, Thomas’s role is diminished. Thomas is averaging fewer minutes than last year, but I suspect he’ll see more consistent minutes because Thomas is really the only backup big. Once Hayes and Brown graduate, Thomas will get opportunities.
Illikainen has size too, but his role might be unclear after the last few games. Truthfully, I put Thomas on this list because I keep waiting for him to put it all together. He’s a good athlete, with a nice looking jumper and soft touch. But it hasn’t yet translated. Perhaps as he gets more opportunities this year, he’ll gain confidence and it’ll unleash his skill set.
Although young, Wisconsin’s bench is deep. The three guys above are a freshman and two sophomores. And, aside from those two, Hill and Illikainen offer even more stability. Gard’s been mixing and matching a bit, and right now, Hill and Illikainen have seen their roles reduced. But, they’ll be heard from, especially Hill.
The tough non-conference schedule is over, and we’re two weeks from Big Ten play, now’s the time to experiment with the bench.