After getting seven exhibitions, a closed-door scrimmage and an intersquad scrimmage under their belt, the Wisconsin men’s basketball team will finally play a game that counts when they host South Carolina State on Friday.
While the Badgers are still 0-0 on the season, Wisconsin fans have had plenty of opportunities to see the new-look Badgers that are playing without the departed Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes, Jordan Hill, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter.
So far, the early returns have been encouraging. Wisconsin’s young group went 4-1 during an August trip to New Zealand and Australia, while beating Northern Iowa and University of Wisconsin-Stout in exhibitions games in the past week. The typical Wisconsin defense still appears to be there, as the Badgers held Northern Iowa to just 38 points in a full 40-minute game on Nov. 1.
The Wisconsin coaching staff has gotten to take a long look at it’s inexperienced lineup that has included two true freshman and a redshirt freshman as the first three players off the bench. All-American Ethan Happ took a back seat as the new guys have grown acclimated to the collegiate level. Happ didn’t attempt a shot against Stout on Sunday, while starting point guard D’Mitrik Trice sat out that game to rest his ankle.
True freshman Brad Davison stepped into the starting role for Trice, shooting 3-of-6 from behind the arc and 4-of-5 from the free-throw line on the way to finishing with 13 points and two assists.
Fellow freshman Kobe King led all scorers in both exhibition outings, scoring 15 points against Northern Iowa and 17 points against Stout. King’s quick development is a positive sign for the Badgers, who have no established secondary scorers to team up with Happ. King got it done from all over the floor in the two exhibitions, shooting 64.7 percent from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The 6-foot-4 guard also showed the ability to get to the rim and finish.
There will certainly be growing pains for both King and Davison, but the early games and talk out of Madison makes it appear as though the true freshmen guards will be a staple in Wisconsin’s lineup all season.
Redshirt freshman Aleem Ford has also been quick off the bench for the Badgers thus far. The 6-foot-8 forward hasn’t shown too much to this point, but he provides a combination of size and skill-set that the Badgers could be lacking this season. Ford had a total of six points, three rebounds, two assists and two blocks against Northern Iowa and Stout, shooting 2-for-8 from behind the 3-point line.
While that trio of freshmen will likely see significant minutes this season, a number of Wisconsin veterans are also being asked to step into larger roles. That starts with Trice, Brevin Pritzl, Khalil Iverson and Andy Van Vliet, who are all moving into the starting lineup after coming off the bench last season.
Iverson’s improvement has been the most obvious to this point. The athletic 6-foot-5 junior forward has had a raw skill-set through his first two seasons in Madison, averaging just 3.9 points and 3.3 rebounds per game last year.
However, Iverson will be forced to do more this season, and he showed his willingness to during the exhibitions. Iverson shot just 24 percent (6-25) from behind the 3-point line last season, but has shown an improved stroke from behind the arc this fall, shooting 3-for-4 from the 3-point line on the way to averaging 10.0 points per game in the wins over Northern Iowa and Stout.
The Badgers are also hoping Van Vliet makes a big jump after playing just 3.4 minutes per game last season. The 7-foot junior from Belgium is going to get his opportunity this year. After a 1-for-4 showing against Northern Iowa, Van Vliet shot 5-for-5 from the field and scored 11 points against a Stout team that started five players listed at 6-foot-2.
An encouraging sign for Van Vliet, who also grabbed 11 total rebounds in the exhibitions, is that all five of his shot attempts against Stout came from inside the arc. Van Vliet is willing and able to shoot threes, but he needs to develop more moves like this hook in order to compete in the Big Ten.
Pritzl will also be counted on to hit 3-pointers for a Wisconsin team that needs to clear the paint for Happ. Pritzl struggled with his shot last season, shooting just 23.8 percent (5-21) from the 3-point line in just 8.1 minutes per game while coming back from a broken foot the year before. However, Pritzl has the smoothest, most stress-free shot on the Badgers. If he can turn that into makes, it will go a long way in balancing out a Wisconsin offense that will struggle at times this season.
Finally, Trice will need to run the show for the Badgers. The sophomore played 18.3 minutes per game as Koenig’s backup last season, averaging 5.6 points and 1.7 assists per game. When the rest of the Badgers don’t have their shots falling, a lot of the scoring pressure will fall on the guy with the ball in his hands, which will usually be Trice.
Charles Thomas IV is the final Wisconsin player who will likely be in the rotation all year. The 6-foot-8, 255-pound junior gives the Badgers a big body who provides a very different game than Van Vliet and Ford and will need to complement Happ inside. Thomas, who averaged 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds in 6.3 minutes per game last season, has looked more aggressive thus far this year, averaging 7.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game against Northern Iowa and Stout.
With games South Carolina State and Yale this weekend, it’ll be interesting to see which of these new developments transfer over to the regular season. A couple of players will likely go through slumps and struggles this season, but if the Badgers can see sustained improvement from a solid group of seven or eight guys they should be able to compete for their 20th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.