Wisconsin's bench continues to take steps forward as the Badgers advance in the N.C.A.A. tournament

Once individual stars in high school, the four members of Wisconsin's bench rotation have redefined their roles for the betterment of the team.

MADISON – Charlie Thomas finished his prep career at Clarksville (MD) River Hills as the school's all-time leader in points (1,717), rebounds (893) and blocked shots (159), so adjusting to life as a reserve could have presented challenges. After all, Thomas couldn’t remember the last time he had to come off the bench before this season.

But coming into a new program with two proven scorers in Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig and a budding star in Ethan Happ, Thomas knew that his best way to contribute was to fill in the gaps.

“In high school I was obviously the main person they go to, but you’ve got to realize your role,” Thomas said. “We’ve got scorers in Nigel, Bronson and Ethan, so I’ve got to do the little things, rebound, play hard and give us a boost. It’s just realizing a role.”

Playing to their strengths has been the bench’s best attribute all season for Wisconsin (22-12), which continues its season Friday against Notre Dame (23-11) in the Sweet 16 at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.

Alex Illikainen averaged over 25 points and 10 rebounds a game his sophomore and junior seasons and finds himself in the same role as Thomas and freshman Khalil Iverson, but the 6-9 forward has never once gone out trying to equal his prep numbers. If he did, Illikainen said he’d being the team a disservice.

“The coaches and the older guys tell you that (coming off the bench) is a simplified version of the role you used to play,” he said. “You try to do the little things. You pick an area, whether it’s rebounding or defense, and do the little things the best you can to help the team. And if you score, that’s obviously going to help the team, but that shouldn’t be pressure on you.”

The bench numbers tell one story for how the season has gone. The four bench players in the rotation – redshirt sophomore Jordan Hill, Illikainen, Iverson and Thomas – play between 9.4 and 15.6 minutes and average between 3.0 and 2.2 points per game. And considering the youth of the group, the play has been sporadic.

But once in a while the bench delivers in a big way, like in the 66-63 victory over Xavier in St. Louis Sunday.

Koenig’ 3-pointer from the corner gets the highlights but the foursome combined to play 47 minutes and contributed six points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and only one turnover.

“You want them to make something positive happen, whether it’s a rebound, a charge, make a good pass or a post play,” assistant coach Gary Close said. “(Against Xavier), Charlie has a couple physical plays in there that helped us get a rebound that won’t show up in the box score … All year is seems to be somebody different (contributing) all the time, and that’s OK. They’ve been a valuable part of what we’ve done.”

Former head coach Bo Ryan rarely utilized Wisconsin’s young bench during the first 12 games of the season, surprising considering the Badgers had no seniors in their rotation and plenty of minutes that needed to be filled.

Head coach Greg Gard was a little better utilizing the depth, but admitted that the freshmen haven’t played nearly as much as he would have liked. That’s partly due to taking over in late December and needing to steady the ship with the veterans, not giving him much time to experiment with different combinations.

Iverson is a prime example of being ready. Blessed with pure raw athleticism, the freshman from Delaware, OH, has made his mark on a national highlight shows with his thunderous dunks. There have also been 14 games where he hasn’t scored.

Against Xavier, Iverson showed his athleticism by elevating for a dunk that he created with a steal. It was his only points, but he registered three blocks, two rebounds (one offensive) and an assist. In a three-possession span in first half, Iverson made three hustle plays that led to six points.

“He also knows to play to his strengths,” Gard said. “He knows not to do something he's not capable of. He uses his strengths very well, whether it's the strength and athleticism to get on the glass, what he can do defensively. He's very good at sliding in behind defenses. He has a nose for finding the ball around the rim.

“The encouraging part is that I know his future is very bright in terms of what he can become, but also he understands right now what he is, what he can do, what he can't do. He's really channeling everything to play within his strengths.”

The confidence coming off the bench has proved critical in March. A year ago Wisconsin relied on senior Duje Dukan and sophomore Zak Showalter on its run to the national finals, as well as getting a boost from the return of senior Traevon Jackson from a foot injury.

Two years ago it was Hayes and Koenig coming off the bench as true freshman, averaging over five points per game on 44 percent shooting.

Having the ability to build off performances like Sunday is an advantage Illikainen feels they have in their corner.

“All the guys off the bench don’t always have a great game, but you look at the last couple games and Charlie had a great game against Pitt and Khalil had a great game against Xavier,” he said. “That gives us all confidence we can go out there and do the same thing. We have a good group thing going.”

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