MADISON – Opening the year ranked No.9 in the preseason AP Top 25, the second-highest debut in program history, Wisconsin will begin its 2016-17 season Friday with a lot of familiar faces when it tips off against Central Arkansas.
The Badgers return each of the top nine scorers from last season, bringing back all but 20 minutes (99.8 percent) and six points (99.7 percent) from a year ago. Wisconsin returns all five starters for the first time since the 1988-89 season, but one of the big stories in the early preseason has been the development of the younger players on the roster.
Senior Bronson Koenig led three Badgers in double figures during their 24-point exhibition win over UW-Platteville Oct.30, but Wisconsin got production from a trio of sophomores. Charlie Thomas had five points and 10 rebounds, Khalil Iverson had nine points (4-for-4) and Andy Van Vliet had eight points and eight rebounds
While seniors Zak Showalter (18) and Vitto Brown (15) led UW in scoring during Saturday’s closed scrimmage against Northern Iowa in Dubuque, Iowa, sophomore Alex Illikainen had 14 points in 16 minutes off the bench, including 4-for-5 from 3-point range.
“In terms of watching a learning curve take place, how guys had grown and taken a step since last Sunday with the Platteville game, things were going in the right direction,” head coach Greg Gard said. “Things that maybe three months, six months ago weren’t instinctual for certain individuals are becoming more instinctual. I think that helps when you have four seniors. It helps with the leadership.”
Gard said the last two exhibition games have been invaluable in helping the staff determine roles and rotations for the near future, although he said the process will be constantly evolving over the five-month season.
One player who will likely see a bigger role than anticipated this season is D'Mitrik Trice. One of only two scholarship freshmen signed by Wisconsin in 2016, Trice has worked his way into the mix and will be competing with junior Jordan Hill for guard minutes off the bench.
“I’ve been impressed with him every day,” Gard said. “He plays well beyond his freshman years. He just acts, walks and talks like a point guard, runs a team like a point guard and just makes point guard plays. I was very happy with what he showed on Saturday.”
Former head coach Bo Ryan was never one to shy away from giving an opinion.
During Ryan’s tenure, he would give a player the information in terms of projected playing time and his opinion on what his role would be on the team. However, Ryan always left redshirting decisions up to the player, which in some instances caused some talented players to play very little early in their careers (i.e. Ben Brust, Keaton Nankivil).
Gard said those conversations about redshirting will happen this week, sitting down with players and answering any questions they may have.
There doesn’t anticipate to be a lot of sitting, however. Of the 17 players on the roster, only nine have the ability to redshirt this season, a list that includes three projected starters (Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes and Koenig).
“I don’t see it being a huge number (of redshirts), if any,” Gard said.
The most likely redshirt candidates include true freshman guard Michael Ballard and freshman forward Aleem Ford.
Early Scouting Reports
Even though it was a scrimmage, Gard decided to put together scout team work for Wisconsin’s rotation for the Northern Iowa contest. The rational for Gard was that with the season on the horizon, it would be a good opportunity for the players to get accustomed to the way things will be done.
“Any time you can expose them to another game-day-like experience, I think it helps,” Gard said. “…We’ve tweaked a little bit of our format with it to fit the coach’s personality of how they wanted to do it. I thought it was good for us to go through those reps.”
Gard added that the bus trip and the preparation – even though the team didn’t stay overnight in a hotel or have a team meal – was also helpful. UW has a busy month of November. Next Tuesday the Badgers face their first road text at No.22 Creighton. After a home game against Chicago State Thursday, Wisconsin flies to Hawaii for three games in the Maui Invitational Nov.21-23, which could have them face No.5 Oregon Nov.22 and No.18 UConn or No.6 North Carolina Nov.23.
"Hopefully we'll continue to get better, because we have to," Gard said. "We've got definitely some stiff challenges ahead of us, but also we've got to get better individually and collectively as a team."