MADISON - Having patiently waited for years for an opportunity to play meaningful minutes at the University of Wisconsin, the work Duje Dukan put into his game in the offseason was noticeable, setting himself for success right out of the gates. The NCAA felt differently.
Because of a slight eligibility issue, Dukan was forced to spend the first two games of the season in suit and tie, unable to participate because of a past disease that wasn’t deemed “debilitating” enough.
“You feel bad for Duje because he’s waited his turn,” said senior guard Josh Gasser. “He sat out a lot of games in his career just as a freshman, sophomore, his redshirt year. He’s improved so much, gotten better and to have to sit out, even though it’s only two games, that’s still two games to add to the list.”
Dukan has served his time, however, and went back to work with the starters on Monday. The senior will likely play his first game of the season Wednesday when No.3 Wisconsin (2-0) begin their in-state round-robin by hosting Green Bay at 8 p.m.
The problem stated for Dukan two seasons ago. Contracting mononucleosis in that offseason, Dukan got zapped of his energy, causing him to miss workouts and struggle with his nutrition. He lost upwards of 15 pounds and by the time he started to feel better, recognized he was in no position to help the team.
Playing briefly in UW’s closed-door scrimmage and exhibition game, Dukan decided to use his redshirt season to fully recover, which he said didn’t happen until around February 2013 when he was able to put on the weight he lost. Unbeknownst to him, he did not qualify for a medical hardship waiver because his illness was not deemed incapacitating for the entire season.
He returned last season and played in all 38 games, averaging 8.1 minutes, 2.8 points and 1.5 rebounds per game.
“I don’t think people really understand how bad mono is until you actually have it for yourself,” Dukan said. “And then having to compete here against guys like this, it’s a grind. Being thrown into the fire right away, it wasn’t something I was ready for.”
Even though Dukan only played in exhibition games, he was deemed to have played a full season of competition. Per NCAA rules, only true freshmen can play in exhibition games and scrimmages and still decide to redshirt before the start of the season.
It was an issue that was brought to Dukan’s attention after last season, but something he was told not to worry about.
“It’s not something I really thought about because it’s not something you hear about too often, so I really didn’t focus on that,” said Dukan. “Obviously as time drew closer I started texting Katie Smith, our compliance lady, to find out what’s going and if there was any news.”
Wisconsin’s compliance department petitioned the NCAA to review and change its ruling all the way up to the Badgers’ exhibition game on Nov.5. UW found out hours before tipoff that no change would be made, meaning Dukan would have to sit out a total of four intercollegiate contests – UW’s closed door scrimmage, exhibition game and first two nonconference games.
“We hoped the power five or the NCAA would come together and hopefully have a ruling in our favor,” said Dukan. “Unfortunately they decided to keep the penalty as it was at four games. Obviously really frustrating.”
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said there was never any concern that Dukan’s career was over because precedent had been set by the NCAA in other cases. Dukan also wasn’t concerned because the program had treated him as a redshirt the entire season.
“In no way was Duje ready physically to be any good to his teammates for another month or two when he decided to redshirt,” said Ryan. “We thought we were doing the right thing and so did he and everybody else. Unfortunately it wasn’t agreed.”
Dukan’s return adds another valuable weapon to Wisconsin’s rotation. Already comfortable with his shooting ability and knowing teams would identify him as a pure shooter, Dukan worked on every other part of his game, spending long hours on his low post game, getting comfortable putting the ball on the floor and develop into what he called an overall threat.
In the early weeks of practice, Dukan showed off that comfort, willing to scrap and be physical in the low post.
“Some guys have made some changes to his game, and that’s one of them,” said assistant coach Lamont Paris. “Duje willing to be more of an active mixer-upper is something he’s added to his game. That will help him. For us, that’s our M.O. That’s our calling card. For him to take that leap that he would like to and from a minutes standpoint, he has to supplement his shooting ability with those kinds of things.”
“I can understand what the college game is like and what to expect,” Dukan added. “I obviously realize what I needed to work on as an individual, so I worked on my game collectively, whether that was the defensive aspect or be able to get myself stronger or be more effective offensive player. I think coming into this year, confidence was a big thing for me. I think the stretch I had at the end of last season gave me a platform to continue that on into this season.”
Although Dukan has tried to embrace the positives of being on the scout team, he’s received overwhelming support from current and former teammates. On Twitter, a number of his teammates started the trend #FreeDuje and former forward Zach Bohannon wrote an online opinion piece and numerous emails to the NCAA.
“I love Z-Bo for that and I love my teammates for that,” said Dukan. “Z-Bo is definitely somebody I want to have around for the rest of my life. He’s always had my back, and I’ll always have his for sure. It was really special.”
The other positive was the suspension lasted only three days into the regular season, much better than the alternative in what could have really ruined his final season.
“If we had a Friday game and had to wait to Friday the next week that would have been brutal, but we get it done in three days,” said Dukan. “It’s not the end of the world…Trading your worst year for your best year, I’m really thankful to have another year with these guys and this program.”