MADISON – One of the three new kids on the block this season for the University of Wisconsin, guard D'Mitrik Trice has yet to show he’s intimidated by his new surroundings, let alone try to fit in on a seasoned basketball team that has been picked by pundits as a Final Four contender.
In the season opener, Trice continued to show that his persona is not a façade.
The true freshman was a spark for No.9 Wisconsin in the first half, hitting a pair of 3-pointers to cap an 11-0 run in the Badgers’ 79-47 victory over Central Arkansas Friday.
“Whenever he’s been on the floor, whether it’s practice or the Platteville game or the Northern Iowa scrimmage, the ball moves,” head coach Greg Gard said of Trice. “He doesn’t stick. He really has a good feel for getting teammates involved. He has a great understanding of the game. I think that was one thing I noticed well before the 3s went in.”
Wisconsin (1-0) shot 47.2 percent from the floor and got a game-high 16 points from Bronson Koenig, 14 from Nigel Hayes and 10 from Zak Showalter, while Ethan Happ had a team-high +35 plus/minus ratio. In his 23 minutes on the court, Happ had eight points on a perfect 4-for-4 shooting, a game-high nine rebounds, four assists, two steals, one block and one turnover.
“Even when he caught the ball inside, it was attracting two of our defenders and that was opening someone on the backside,” Central Arkansas coach Russ Pennell said of Happ. “His impact on the game really couldn’t be measured in his stats. His unselfishness had a lot to do with how the others perform.”
Wisconsin led wire-to-wire but certainly creating some anxious moments in the opening half. Jumping out to a 13-3 lead in the first 6 minutes, Central Arkansas (0-1) thrice chipped the lead down to two, the latest coming on a Darraja Parnell layup at 7:13.
That’s when Wisconsin put any fears to bed. Koenig hit a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession to make it 22-17 and kick start the Badgers scoring 11 points in the next four possessions. Trice dropped in the final six of those points, hitting a contested 3-pointer from the elbow and draining another after guard Jordan Hill kicked the ball out to the perimeter after penetrating into the lane.
The plays came roughly nine minutes after Trice first checked into the game and promptly turned the ball over after delivering a steal.
“I was kind of down on myself at that point, but I knew I had to keep playing,” Trice said, finishing with eight points, two rebounds, one steal and three turnovers in 13 minutes. “I knew my teammates had my back. Knocking down those shots really helped my confidence.”
There were few anxious moments after that. UW started the second half with a 14-3 run, including two 3s and eight points from Hayes to extend its lead to 45-25. Wisconsin led by as many as 33 points in the second half in part because of the perimeter shot.
Since starting out 1 of 10 from 3-point range, UW made 10 of its final 19. Koenig hit four while three other players had at least two.
With the Badgers playing six games in 13 days, including a road trip to No.22 Creighton on Tuesday and three games in the Maui Invitational the week after that, Gard rotated in a lot of players. The end result was no player playing more than 24 minutes.
“We were … trying to use and developing a bench that will hopefully be a strength of ours,” Gard said. “I think it is already.”
A year after 17th-ranked Wisconsin allowed Western Illinois to shoot 54 percent from the field, hit 7 of 9 from 3-point range and outscored them 30-20 in the paint to pull a 69-67 shocker in the season opener, the Badgers were much better defensively against the Bears.
Holding Central Arkansas (0-1) to only one field goal over the final 7:13 of the first half and one basket over the first 7:09 of the second half, Wisconsin limited the visitors to 28.3 percent shooting from the floor, just 12 points in the paint and forced 12 turnovers.
“You watch Wisconsin on film and you know about their defense and the reputation of it,” Pennell said. “When you see it up close and personal, you see really how good it is. They just don’t give you anything easy.”
Junior guard Derrick Brooks led the Bears with 12 points, while first-team All-Southland Conference selection Jordan Howard finished with 10 points on just 2-for-11 shooting.
“I thought we showed a lot of promise and we had flashes of playing really good defense,” Koenig said. “Overall we did a pretty good job.”
A year ago, thanks to graduated players, players being pushed into new roles and younger players needing to play heavy minutes, Wisconsin’s nonconference shooting percentage landed at 41.8 percent, a large culprit to Wisconsin going 7-6 before the start of conference play.
It’s a small sample size, but Koenig is expecting this year’s group to be better in that department.
“I feel like we have shooters who are more comfortable this year than they were at the beginning of last year, not knowing their identity, their role or when and where they would get those shots,” he said. “Now we’re more comfortable with knowing how we can get our shots and when we can get them. I feel like everybody went home and improved. We didn’t have a great shooting night tonight, but there will be a lot better ones.”