MADISON – The buzz of the arena had quieted down to the point that the dribble of a basketball on the hardwood echoed in the corners of the Kohl Center.
Wisconsin had just won an overtime thriller against No.19 Indiana – the third win of what would become a seven game winning streak that would change the course of the season. The players were in the locker room celebrating with each other. The fans were either in their cars heading home or out to celebrate.
Andy Van Vliet was working.
The Wisconsin freshman – ruled ineligible by the N.C.A.A. in November – had watched his teammates shoot 52.1 percent from the floor, go 28-for-37 from the free throw line and make vital defensive stops late in his street clothes. With the arena devoid of fans and only game personnel going about their business, the 6-11 forward from Antwerp, Belgium, changed into his Wisconsin practice sweats and started to work on his shooting and agility.
“At the moment I found out I was not eligible, I turned around immediately and starting focusing on different stuff, getting my body right, trying to being ready for next year,” said Van Vliet. “Just setting my mind on, OK, I can’t play. I’m not going to sit here and whine about it. I’m just going to work hard, get better every day and just be ready when my time is there and help the team win.”
Home games were a challenge this year for Van Vliet, sitting on the bench and watching while his teammates played. It was especially challenging during the early season growing pains, where Wisconsin lost five times by early January.
“Seeing the great crowd, the atmosphere and everything else, you just want to play,” said Van Vliet, who watched UW’s road games at a friend’s house or in the locker room with team managers. “The first couple times really sucked and was a little bit down.”
Van Vliet was expected to see minutes off the bench for Wisconsin’s remade roster until he got the rug pulled out from underneath him. N.C.A.A. rules state that prospective student-athletes have one year to enroll in a collegiate institution following their high school graduation or expected graduation date. First repeating a grade to put him a year behind, Van Vliet then played basketball as an amateur outside of that one-year window, which resulted in him being forced to sit out this season and lose a year of eligibility.
After playing last season with the Antwerp Giants in his native Belgium, not to mention playing three seasons with the Belgium national team, there were thoughts that Van Vliet would return to Europe instead of spending the year in exile.
But before the question could even be asked if he thought about leaving the program, Van Vliet interrupted with an emphatic “no.”
“I was committed to staying here,” said Van Vliet. “People from back home asked me why I wouldn’t come home because it made no sense to stay there. It would be stupid to go back after what all these people have done for me, what I’ve all had to do to get here and besides, it’s only one year. It’s not five years. Maybe it’s good for me. It allows me to get more time to work on my game and my body instead of playing and being on the road the whole time.”
Van Vliet has a pair of good people around him in head trainer Henry Perez-Guerra and head strength coach Erik Helland. The duo have helped him add 20 pounds to his frame, increasing his weight to around 221, to allow him to play a much more physical style since arriving in the fall.
Instead of being a pure perimeter shooter, Van Vliet has worked on improving his low-post presence and has become a thorn in the side of freshman Ethan Happ and others while working on the scout team.
“He’s approached (this season) the right way in terms of using it as a tool toward making himself better,” said head coach Greg Gard. “He could have gone back home, completely packed it in or written this year off, but he understood this is an opportunity to get better. He had a big transition as it was, coming to a new country, going to college for the first time and playing on a brand new team. He had plenty of things on his plate to keep him occupied. The progression he’s made has been remarkable. I like where he’s going and how he’s adapted.”
Van Vliet also has more confidence with his skills and general understanding of the rules, a hurdle he had to clear after playing in Europe with international rules his entire career.
“The first couple of weeks when I got here, I wasn’t as confident because I didn’t have that much weight,” said Van Vliet. “I was like, OK, do I really belong here? Look at me, I’m the skinny the 200-pound guy. I’ve got more confident playing these guys and watching games. I think I can do stuff next year and help the team.”
Wisconsin is counting on Van Vliet to be someone who can stretch the floor with his size and his length, forcing teams to be cautious on when to throw double teams on players. He also believes that the pick-and-roll actions are beneficial to his style.
The goal this summer is to continue adding weight, gain comfort in the low post and beat players off the dribble.
“He’ll have a learning curve to go through next year,” said Gard. “Ethan has gone through that adjustment. It’s different because there aren’t many rules and regulations on the scout team, but for him to commit to this team and how he’s been able to help us is a great sign for the future.”
Van Vliet said he’s taken notes from nearly everyone on the team, from Nigel Hayes’ low post moves, Jordan Smith’s leadership, Happ’s advice from growing from a redshirt year and exchanging notes with classmate Alex Illikainen.
Now it’s all about putting the entire book together, and prove next fall that he belongs in the college game.
“I just can’t wait to show people how much I have improved,” said Van Vliet. “People who have doubted me or from back home saying it was a bad move or that Wisconsin was way too good of a school for him. I’m really excited to get back on the floor with my teammates and getting back in the game again.”