Wisconsin capped off a 10-day trip to New Zealand and Australia with an 83-71 victory over the Sydney Kings on Tuesday. The win improved the Badgers to 4-1 during the international trip, with their lone loss a 90-89 defeat to Melbourne United on Sunday.
Now the Badgers will come home to Madison and reflect on what they learned about their team over the last 10 days. The offseason trip came at the perfect time for a young Wisconsin team that has a lot to figure out before the 2017-18 season opens in November.
With four starters gone from last season’s Sweet 16 team, Wisconsin’s only certainty going into this year is junior center Ethan Happ. Therefore, the Badgers used their five games Down Under to get guys comfortable with each other on and off the court. Head coach Greg Gard used a new starting lineup in all five games and Wisconsin fans got an early look at who will be asked to contribute this season.
It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from exhibition basketball in August, but some things stuck out during Wisconsin’s trip.
Freshmen are going to play
Wisconsin has been playing more and more freshmen over the last few years, but this could be the youngest team to date. The true freshman trio of Brad Davison, Kobe King and Nate Reuvers all saw significant playing time the last two weeks -- and they didn’t disappoint.
Reuvers has the skill set to compete, as the 6-foot-10 forward averaged 6.2 points per game during the trip. Reuvers showed the ability to grow into a difference-maker this season, but with a relatively experienced front court, he may not get that opportunity right off the bat.
Davison and King, however, will seemingly be asked to contribute right away. The guards didn’t look overwhelmed the last two weeks, as Davison averaged 11.2 points per game and King chipped in 9.2 points per game. D’Mitrik Trice (12.4 ppg), Ethan Happ (12.0) and Brevin Pritzl (11.4) were the only Badgers to score more during the trip.
Davison, a 6-foot-3 four-star guard from Minnesota, will get every chance to be the primary ball handler behind Trice. Davison showed a little bit of everything the last two weeks, handling the ball, hitting 3-pointers, playing defense and getting to the basket. Davison broke out for 25 points, including eight straight points down the stretch, to help Wisconsin hold off the Sydney Kings on Tuesday. He looks every bit the part of a four-year staple for the Badgers.
King also showcased an all-around game, scoring 18 points against the Hawthorn Magic and Melbourne United. The 6-foot-4 guard from La Crosse spent most of his time playing off the ball and created offense in a number of ways. King showed a solid 3-point stroke, but he really stood out on the boards, attacking the offensive glass to create second chances. Offensive boards will be tougher to get in the Big Ten, but King showed a willingness to mix it up and the smarts to find holes in the defense.
They can shoot
As has been the case in the past, the Badgers could put 3-point shooters all over the floor this year. Wisconsin shot 44.8 percent from behind the arc during the five games abroad, including a 15-for-20 performance against the New Zealand Breakers.
With the exception of Happ, Wisconsin will almost always have a team of shooters on the floor this year, after shooting just 35.9 percent (283-789) from behind the arc last season.
Pritzl was the standout against the Breakers, shooting 7 of 9 from behind the 3-point line to score a team-high 28 points. Pritzl’s shooting will be huge for the Badgers this season after he struggled to shoot 23.8 percent (5-21) from behind the arc as a freshman.
Junior forward Andy Van Vliet also showed the 3-point stroke that fans have heard about, shooting 7 of 16 from behind the arc the last two weeks. Trice, Davison and King also showed consistent 3-point strokes, and Trice shot a team-leading 41.8 percent (38-91) from behind the arc as a freshman last season.
Don’t expect Happ to be one of those shooters
Despite recent articles to the contrary, Happ will not be one of those shooters this year. He’s still battling a shot that led him to shoot just 50 percent (81-162) from the free-throw line last season. He’ll still be a detriment at the line, even air balling one against Melbourne United.
Who knows? Maybe he is knocking down 3-pointers in practice, but a free-throw stroke like that usually doesn’t translate well behind the arc, and Happ wasn’t shooting threes the last two weeks. Happ seems determined to develop at least a mid-range game at some point, but he still has a way to go to make that happen his junior year.
Secondary scorers are going to vary
Happ is the go-to guy, an All-American who averaged 14.0 points per game last season. The Badgers will look to run the offense through him, but as a 6-foot-10 center, that’s not always easy.
Therefore, the Badgers are going to need to develop consistent secondary scoring options as the season progresses. Trice will likely be that guy when the season opens in November. Trice averaged just 5.6 points per game as a freshman, but the 6-foot guard didn’t shy away from anything and showed that he can score in a number of ways.
Pritzl’s development will be huge for Wisconsin. Fans have heard that the 6-foot-3 guard can fill it up, even having Nigel Hayes calling Pritzl “the best shooter in the country” last season, but it hasn’t translated on the court yet. If he can hang on to the confidence that he played with the last two weeks, it could go a long way in replacing the scoring Wisconsin lost with the departures of Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown.
Illikainen, Iverson, Thomas haven’t made their jump yet
Wisconsin has built a bit of reputation for having players come out of nowhere as juniors. Frank Kaminsky and Vitto Brown are the most recent examples, and the Badgers would get a huge boost if at least one of the trio of Illikainen, Iverson and Thomas make that leap this year.
None of them jumped off the page in New Zealand and Australia. Iverson looked like the same Iverson, which is good, but not a guy you can rely on on the offensive end. The 6-foot-5 forward showcased his athleticism and moved the ball well, but he averaged 6.2 points per game and didn’t look comfortable shooting or handling the ball. Iverson will be key to the Badgers success this year, but don’t expect him to take on too much of a scoring role yet.
Thomas and Illikainen didn’t stand out much at all the last two weeks, averaging 2.2 points and 1.2 points per game, respectively. One of them is expected to open the year in the starting lineup alongside Happ and will need to be at least a threat on the offensive end.
Illikainen has a smooth-looking shot, but has yet to turn it into any sort of consistent offense while also not being able to be on the floor defensively at times. Thomas has the body to bang defensively and grab rebounds, but he has also yet to find his role offensively. If one of them can develop into a consistent threat, it will go a long way into Wisconsin finishing in the top four of the Big Ten and making their 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.