MADISON - Once he knew he was good enough to play college basketball and the interest starting trickling in, Alex Illikainen wanted to play outside the Midwest. He was a high school freshman, ready to get out and see a different part of the country and feeling perfectly comfortable moving out to either the West or East Coast.
But as he grew older and the interest turned into major scholarship offers, Illikainen realized he was a Midwest guy at heart.
“It came to me last year, and I really started to love the Midwest and the Big Ten,” Illikainen said. “I knew it would be a good fit for me. Coming to the end of my decision, I still considered far away schools, but I just wanted to stay closer to home. I just liked the Midwest.”
Illikainen found his Midwest home in September when he committed to the University of Wisconsin and made it official Wednesday, being one of three high school seniors expected to sign their national letter of intent to the Badgers on the first day of the early signing period. He joined four-star De Pere (WI) shooting guard Brevin Pritzl (ranked No.14 SG in the country by Scout.com) and three-star Clarksville (MD) River Hill power forward Charlie Thomas.
Wisconsin offered the 6-9, 225-pound Illikainen in August, joining a scholarship list that included California, Creighton, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska and Oregon. He committed a month later on his official visit for a variety of reasons, but the biggest was the relationship he developed with associate head coach Greg Gard over time and his instant connection with Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan on the visit.
“Coach Gard is a great guy, and I have a great relationship with him,” said Illikainen. “He’s been to a lot to my games, but I had to have a great relationship with the coach, too. Coach Ryan is a great guy, really knows what he’s doing, really knows how to prepare his teams and is a very smart man. I have a good relationship with all the coaches, but those two I have the best relationship with.”
Another reason was the style and philosophy of Wisconsin, which relies heavily on its low post players to be able to mix it up underneath the rim and also be a factor on the perimeter.
“I like how they use guys like me and they have a history with guys like me,” said Illikainen. “I feel like (playing) a stretch-four position, being able to work the inside and outside and not just be at one position, not just stuck in the paint or stuck on the wing. I feel it was good for my style of playing with how they play. They like their big guys to shoot the ball, so that’s a good opportunity.”
Originally from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Illikainen is in his first year at Brewster Academy, a well-regarded prep school in Wolfeboro, N.H. It was a move he decided to make in order to play against a higher level of competition in games and in practices.
Of the 14 players listed on the Academy’s roster, seven are committed to power five conference schools. In practices, Illikainen has been pushed by a pair of 6-8 forwards in Marcus Derrickson (Georgetown) and Jarred Reuter (Virginia), learning that putting in a large amount of hard work pays off.
“Those guys compete every day in practice,” Illikainen said. “Those guys have big bodies and they like to be physical, so I try to not let them push me around that much, push back and use my quickness to get around them. They definitely push me the hardest in the weight room and the court. I’ve learned a lot; the amount of time you need to put in, the hard work and the intensity you need to work at is going to get me ready for next year. It’s good to be with high level guys.”
Illikainen was another solid addition to the Brewster program, averaging over 26 points per game and 11 rebounds during his sophomore and junior season.
“Alex is working hard and will be someone we rely heavily on this year,” Brewster coach Jason Smith said. “He's been shooting the ball well from perimeter, as well as rebounding the ball well early on during practice. We will continue to work with him on strength and playing more physical, as the Big Ten is known as being a very physical league.”
Wanting to go to a prep program that was going to push him, Illikainen feels he’s already in better position to start contributing at Wisconsin. He also feels he can accomplish some good things with Pritzl, who he met at the NBA Top 100 camp in June and again on his official visit, and Thomas, who he’s still getting to know.
Most importantly, he feels the group can help build on the level of success the outgoing Wisconsin seniors have already accomplished.
“I’m starting to realize how big time it is to play in the Big Ten and be ranked so high,” said Illikainen, referring to UW’s No.3 preseason ranking. “For as many years to have the success they’ve had, it’s starting to hit me now that I’m going to such a prestigious school.”