Projected Starting Five?
Vitto Brown – The time is now for Brown. During the back-to-back Final Four runs, Brown saw little playing time. A year ago, he appeared in 34 games and averaged 6.3 minutes, 1.8 points and 1.3 rebounds. In his career, he’s been known more for the quick hook than offense. Smaller, quicker guards have taken advantage of sloppy footwork and driven past him, resulting in Brown fouling as he tries to play catch up and a spot on the bench next to Bo Ryan.
Brown has taken his first real chance at playing time seriously. Throughout the summer, Brown said he’s worked on specifically improving his game in the low post and his explosiveness by hitting the weights and doing plenty of conditioning. He’s also dabbled in a perimeter game.
“I feel more comfortable attacking the rim," Brown said. “It's all about confidence. I've always felt that skill-wise and physically.”
Using this preseason to break though the mental roadblock, Brown has been shooting a good percentage throughout practices. He finished 3-for-8 with 7 points but it was his seven rebounds that stand out. Production like that will give him opportunities this season.
Ethan Happ – My pick for the breakout player on this year’s roster, it’s evident from watching Happ that last year’s redshirt did him wonders. He’s noticeable stronger and more nimble with his footwork, a product of going against consensus national player of the year Frank Kaminsky daily in practice, not to mention going against Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes. Needless to say his training ground was as good as anybody’s from the country.
Dekker aside, Wisconsin hasn’t asked it’s “bigs” to play major roles as freshmen, but Happ appears to have the abilities to play a lot of minutes in the low post and be effective. In 28 minutes, Happ finished with eight points and a team-high eight rebounds.
“He’s probably the guy, right now, who can do it the most,” said assistant coach Gary Close. “Everybody has shown flashes, but he has probably been the most consistent in a limited amount of practice time. He’s very talented. The sky is the limit for him, but he’s unproven. That’s OK. That’s reality. I’m anxious to see what he can do because we saw a lot of positive things last year.”
Nigel Hayes – The big question with Hayes now is can be still be effective as the focal point of the Wisconsin’s offense, now that Dekker and Kaminsky are in the N.B.A. Hayes said at the end of last season that he was nowhere ready for the N.B.A., so he said he spent the offseason working on becoming a more well-rounded player.
Assertiveness is the big key with Hayes, getting to the free throw and being more versatile. He didn’t appear fully engaged during portions of the scrimmage and his final stat line reflects that: 2-for-10, 6 points, three turnovers.
When he turns it on, however, like he did in the final seconds, he can be hard to stop.
“I think Bronson and I will be the two guys that define this machine,” said Hayes. “Not only keep ourselves and each other in line but also make sure we help the younger guys who are a little more inexperienced. Of course we’ll have to pick up the scoring slack with what we lost.”
Jordan Hill – It’s been an extremely long two years for Hill waiting his turn, especially making the decision to redshirt prior to start of last season. It appeared to serve its purpose, as Hill is another player who looks stronger physically and in his skills. Working at both guard spots, Hill looks comfortable at either spot and brings that harassing, bulldog mentality that UW has to replace this season without Josh Gasser.
Hill still needs to work on coming off ball screens, attacking the basket and being in the right position to score, but he has good court vision. He shot the ball efficiently (3-for-5), had a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and looked like a player ready to take the next step.
Bronson Koenig – Savvy is the word that comes to mind when watching Koenig work. He’s sound defensively, has tremendous vision and usually isn’t careless with the ball, the last two statements backed up by his 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. Playing with a new group threw off his timing, as he finished with a game-high five turnovers.
Koenig will have more opportunities to score this season but he has rarely taken bad shots in his career. He didn’t force anything during the scrimmage but didn’t have anything fall for him either (5-for-14). To his credit, he started 1-for-9 and kept plugging away.
Regardless, his coaches and teammates have put supreme confidence in him to be able to make plays when the shot clock of the game clock is winding down.
Off the bench
Riley Dearring – The redshirt sophomore has not been an impact scholarship player during his two years on campus. Dearring has struggled with his confidence and injuries, causing him to not be aggressive or assertive in practices. If you don’t practice well, Ryan won’t play you. Ryan said he’s practicing better but strength is still a big issue with Dearring, who has struggled adjusting to the increased size of players. He has the tools to get to the rim and make his own shot, which was on display during portions of the scrimmage, but hasn’t been there consistently.
Zak Showalter – Showalter’s biggest trait has always been his energy but the question now is if he can thrive in a bigger role. In 35 games last season, Showalter averaged just 7.6 minutes and 2.1 points. He redshirted two years ago after playing as a true freshman and feels he’s taken strides. An ankle injury suffered during the summer is finally in his past, allowing Showalter to increase his workload.
Showalter looked fresh during the scrimmage, leading the red team with 11 points and getting to the free throw line a game-high seven times (making five). His ability off the dribble has improved and he’s never afraid to go into the lane. That mentality – along with his experience – make him a vital part this season.
Alex Illikainen – Spending the last year at Brewster Academy, going against other future high-level Division 1 players who were bigger and faster than the players he was playing against in high school, Illikainen’s game is a perfect fit with his inside-outside game. He made all three of his shots and had a game-high three steals, showing good presence and confidence on the floor.
Khalil Iverson – A strong, athletic big man, Iverson has the ability to score, rebound and pass, evident by his 17 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists. Iverson does so many things that Ryan loves – crashing the glass, finding his teammates (game-high four assists) and taking charges, which he did when he stood his ground on a drive by Showalter.
The big thing now is consistency with his shot, which has been on and off throughout the preseason. There’s no question that Iverson, along with Charlie Thomas, is ahead of most true freshmen physically. He feels the work he did in high school has made the transition to the college game manageable and thinks he’s slightly ahead of the freshman learning curve, a main reason why he seeks out Hayes to matchup against in practice.
“I’m trying to do all the little things the correct way and do them the way them the way the coaches want them to be done,” said Iverson. “I’m not trying to do anything impressive, just defense, rebounding and not turning the ball over. They tell us that’s the easiest way to get on the court.”
Brevin Pritzl – The former four-star guard is still recovering from offseason ankle surgery and is in the strength and conditioning phase right now and did not participate. Not knowing when he’ll be cleared, Pritzl is hoping to play in UW’s lone exhibition game (Nov. 4 vs. UW-River Falls) and make a decision on whether or not to redshirt prior to the opener.
Charlie Thomas – A big body on the inside, Thomas has shown ability early this year to knock down his outside shot and embrace the defensive side of the ball, two things that go a long way in the eyes of Ryan. His defensive footwork is still a little suspect, as is his court awareness. He will need to adjust to the speed of practice and improve in Wisconsin’s ball-screen scheme, one thing that will earn you a seat on the bench next to Ryan.
“He has a chance to step up and really show something, saying ‘You don’t know who I am, but I can play, too,’” said Hill.
Andy Van Vliet – Van Vliet is having to play catch up since a paperwork issue prevented him from arriving in Madison in the summer. Van Vliet is tall and lanky but is the outside shooter he was advertised as. That’s the impact he’ll likely bring in the immediate future as he is playing catchup with the eight weeks of strength training he missed over the summer.
Even so, Van Vliet does a lot of nice things on the floor. Even though he’s undersized (he’s added seven pounds to increase his weight to 209 since arriving), Van Vliet doesn’t shy away from the low post. Many of his game-high nine rebounds came from him being at the right place at the right time, and he picked his spots to be in attack mode. His shot didn’t fall (2-for-10 0-for-3 from 3) but scored eight points by going 4-for-5 from the line and registering a game-high four blocks.
The biggest thing Van Vliet is working through is learning the rule changes from international to college hoops. That’s been evident early with Van Vliet as he tries to understand concepts, which has resulted in some rushed shots, turnovers and overthinking.
Ryan and the staff doesn’t discount how big of addition Van Vliet is to the freshman class, a main reason why they are throwing a lot of things at him. At 6-9, Van Vliet is the tallest player on the roster and has taken strides over the last week of practice, showing better shot consistency, better footwork and a better understanding of what UW needs from him.
He still needs to improve on his post rebounding (losing on a couple 50-50 rebounds), finishing at the rim and defense, but it’s evident there’s a role for him this season.
Matt Ferris – Playing in nine games a season ago, Ferris will likely be used only late in games.
Will Decorah – The former manager turned walk-on is a tremendous success story.
Aaron Moesch – Of the group listed here, Moesch has got the best chance to see minutes should others above him struggle.
T.J. Schlundt – Coming off his redshirt season, Schlundt appears to be relegated to scout team use.
Jordan Smith – The only senior on the team, the walk-on will be a valuable leader on this unit.