MADISON - Having recruited enough players and been in enough homes over his college coaching tenure, associate head coach Greg Gard likes to think he has a pretty good feel for when recruiting targets are going to pull the trigger and commit to his school.
But even Wisconsin’s long-time assistant couldn’t fathom at the time how big of a recruiting day the Badgers had on June 12, 2010, when both Traevon Jackson and Frank Kaminsky committed within hours of each other.
The commitments didn’t move the needle from a national scale. A pair of three-star prospects, Jackson committed over an Arizona State offer. Kaminsky held local offers from DePaul, Illinois and Northwestern. Four-and-a-half years later, both have clearly outplayed those small expectations.
Considered one of the frontrunners for national player of the year, Kaminsky leads the Badgers in virtually every major category, and Jackson has been a respected floor leader during his three seasons running the point guard position.
It’s a reason that makes Sunday’s senior day against Michigan State extra special, considering both players have a chance to be on the floor and play a part in the Badgers winning their first conference championship since 2008.
“We never tied one to the other,” recalled Gard. “We try to let everybody work on their own time frame and not put that unneeded pressure on anybody. It’s a long-term-impacting decision. We’ve never given anybody a decision date. We knew (when they committed) they would have a chance if they worked hard, because we were going to show them the way.”
Although the duo will be honored along with Duje Dukan and Josh Gasser prior to the game, Jackson and Kaminsky are all that’s left of the 2011 signing class after George Marshall transferred to South Dakota State last fall and Jarrod Uthoff left for Iowa in spring 2012.
Neither Jackson or Kaminsky were on campus when they committed, but it only seemed fitting they both came to the same conclusion on the same day considering the similar paths they’ve traveled in their basketball careers.
Growing up, both players never had to look far to find someone to teach them the finer points of playing the game.
Frank Kaminsky Jr. played college basketball at Lewis University, where he finished as the seventh-leading scorer in school history with 1,521 points and was elected to the school's Hall of Fame in 1992. Jackson watched old tapes of his dad, Jim, star at Ohio State and in the NBA.
Both got the game introduced to them by their father and both relied on their counsel when the rigors of the recruiting process both started to heat up. Most importantly, both families pointed to Wisconsin as the right fit.
Jackson jumped on Wisconsin’s radar after averaging 20.5 points, eight rebounds and 5.6 assists per game his junior year. He visited Wisconsin in fall 2009 and made a return trip the week before he committed with his mom to get her approval.
Kaminsky visited in May 2010, received a scholarship on his visit from former assistant coach Howard Moore and committed a day after he returned home from an unofficial visit, a trip also done to get mom’s approval.
The first person Kaminsky talked to after committing was Jackson and the two became roommates for their first two years on campus.
“We’ve grown into good friends,” said Kaminsky. “We had a bond even before we got on campus here.”
After playing only 92 minutes as a true freshman, Jackson had offseason goals of working his way into the rotation to be a bigger contributor as a sophomore. He got his wish before the Badgers even started practice, coming at the expense of Gasser tearing his ACL and being lost for the season.
Playing in all 35 games, including started the final 29, Jackson developed from a wide-eyed sophomore to one of the better point guards in the Big Ten last season, even earning 2014 NCAA Tournament All-Region honors during UW's run to the Final Four.
“Trae has put in a lot of time,” said Gard. “There’s no doubt. Watching his improvement and what he’s done, seeing him come into the gym and leaving the gym this summer, you know he’s really committed himself to making himself into a really good player. He understood that he needed to become better as an individual, but ultimately he’s a team guy. If he improved, his team would improve, and that’s what he’s concerned about.”
Kaminsky had to wait two years before his opportunities arose, studying and developing under the tutelage of Jared Berggren. The results were a breakout junior season that few could equal. After averaging just 10.3 minutes and 4.2 points per game in 2012-13, Kaminsky became a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick after leading the Badgers in points (13.9) and rebounds (6.3) and posted the third-highest block total in school history (66).
He broke the school single game record for scoring with a 43-point game against North Dakota, was named the NCAA Tournament West Regional Most Outstanding Player and was tabbed the conference’s preseason player of the year and an All-American entering this year.
And instead of resting on those accomplishments, Jackson, Kaminsky and the rest of Wisconsin’s players pushed harder than before this past offseason to obtain all the accolades they missed out on.
“Trae has his opinions on changing the culture around here,” said Kaminsky. “I think we pretty much did that to an extent (with the Final Four). We’re still the same team. We still have the same principles, but the way we approach things are definitely different than the way we did in the past. This team we have, this group of guys, are all really close, but at the same time we’re really stubborn. We know what we want and we’re going to go work as hard as we can to get to that point.”
That work generated high expectations that Wisconsin is living up to. With a little more than a week remaining in the regular season, the Badgers (25-3, 13-2 Big Ten) are a near lock for a high seed in the NCAA tournament and have been ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll all 16 weeks (including 13 weeks in the top five).
What’s even more impressive is they’ve done a bulk of their winning in conference without Jackson, who broke a bone in his foot Jan.11 and has been sidelined since, ending a streak of 84 consecutive starts. Saying he’s wearing a protective boot for only cautionary measures, Jackson said he’ll practice this week, perhaps as early as today, and will make his return against the Spartans.
“It’s truly a blessing to be able to have this time, to be able to come back and just be a part of this great run that we have,” said Jackson. “We’ve got a great group of guys in there and a great team. I just want to help us win championships.”
Even though he’ll likely be eased into the role when he’s medically cleared, Jackson returning to the floor adds an experienced body with big game experience to Wisconsin’s rotation for what they hope is a deep postseason run; a run that will essentially be fueled by two friends that few people wanted in the beginning that everyone would love to have in the end.
“That’s why I never put stock into rankings, because there are so many variables that go into it that never get ranked,” said Gard. “Rankings don’t measure how hard you want to work, how big your heart is, how much commitment you want to make, are you going to put in the days when no one is around and you’re not going to get the accolades. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go into this that fans aren’t going to see.”