BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – There was no secret that Wisconsin Badgers entered the 2016-17 season loaded with potential and experience. On paper the Badgers returned at least 99 percent of every major statistical category from their Sweet 16 team, meaning there would be a lot of familiar faces in the meeting rooms and on the court. Practices have validated that.
With Wisconsin’s scout team full of players who know their way around the court, senior Bronson Koenig apparently looked around the room prior to the season and proclaimed that this was easily the best scout team Wisconsin has had in his four seasons.
“We have 17 guys and I’d be willing to put all 17 out on the court against anybody,” junior Aaron Moesch said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can play.”
And with that depth at his disposal, head coach Greg Gard hasn’t been afraid to use it to keep his starters fresh.
As No.13 Wisconsin (12-2, 1-0 Big Ten) prepares for its conference road opener at No.25 Indiana (10-4, 0-1) at Assembly Hall tonight, all five starters are averaging fewer minutes per game than they were through 14 games last season.
Nigel Hayes is averaging 28.8 minutes, a drop of 7.7.
Koenig is at 28.6, a drop of 6.8.
Zak Showalter is at 26.8, a drop of 6.8.
Vitto Brown is at 21.4, a drop of 5.5.
Ethan Happ is at 24.4, a drop of 3.0.
“I think Coach Gard does a great job getting those guys ready,” Brown said. “Whether it’s in practice or getting live game experience, everybody is always ready to contribute.”
Gard has said repeatedly that it’s all about how guys produce in practice and what they do in the games with those earned minutes that determines who he plays.
Junior guard Jordan Hill and sophomore forward Alex Illikainen are each in shooting slumps (Illikainen 6-for-21 from the floor; Hill 3-for-16 from 3-point range), so Gard has been able to turn to different options.
Sophomore forward Charles Thomas has improved his low post game to grab two rebounds per contest and draw fouls, going 15-for-17 at the line. Sophomore guard/forward Khalil Iverson is averaging 5.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, up from 3.2 points and 2.3 rebounds last season. He’s also finishing plays stronger at the rim (58.7 percent shooting), as a result getting 3.2 more minutes on the field.
And then there’s D'Mitrik Trice, who has even surprised his coaching staff with how well he’s adjusted to the college game. The former high school quarterback has become Koenig’s understudy and Gard’s first option of the bench.
Playing 17.8 minutes per game, Trice is averaging 6.5 points on 50.8 percent shooting (31-for-61) with 22 assists and 18 made 3-pointers. Saying he was once a little intimated with the experienced guards in front of him, Trice saw that soon dissipate when he started competing with them.
“My competitive spirit was right there with them,” Trice said. “I’m out there competing every day to fight for minutes. Learning from the older guys is a big thing. They are always willing to help and tell me what I need to do in this situation or that situation.”
Wisconsin is so deep that Gard has struggled to find minutes for Moesch, sophomore forward Andy Van Vliet and freshman Brevin Pritzl, who have caused headaches on the scout team with their production.
“Everyone contributes, whether or not that’s 40 minutes a game for the top guys or if it’s five minutes for somebody else” Moesch said. “The cool thing about this group is we’re OK doing what we have to do to win. Whether or not I play five minutes or zero minutes, we have that mentality where it’s not me, me, me. It’s us, us, us. I don’t know if we’ve had that same mentality since my sophomore year.”
Two years ago was the banner season for team chemistry. Wisconsin started the year with three seniors in the starting lineup, one of which was consensus national player of the year Frank Kaminsky, and the bench had some pop. In addition to Brown and Showalter, UW relied heavily on senior Duje Dukan, who made a N.B.A. roster as a rookie with the Sacramento Kings, and Koenig, who stepped in to start the final 24 games of the season when Traevon Jackson broke his foot in January.
“Dukan only played 16 minutes and he made an N.B.A. team,” Moesch said. “Was he unhappy? Maybe a little bit, but it wasn’t like he made a big deal about it because he was willing to go out there when his number was called. That charge against Oregon (in the N.C.A.A. tournament second round), that was one of the biggest plays and he was always ready to do that. That’s the same kind of mentality that we have. We’ll do what it takes to win.”
In tough scenarios, Wisconsin’s bench has produced. With one day of rest after losing at Creighton, UW’s bench played 108 minutes and scored 36 points in an 18-point win over Chicago State. The reserves scored 39 points against Prairie View A&M in the team’s first game back after a long travel from Hawaii and 52 points after an eight-day break from finals with conference play three days away.
That production – not to mention the rebounds, assists, energy, etc. - has kept Wisconsin fresh for some of the bigger games on the schedule and for its Big Ten conference grind.
“The energy and the enthusiasm and how those guys off the bench give us a spark,” Gard said. “That’s one of the traits hopefully of this team as we continue to grow that we get contributions in a lot of areas. Not always maybe in point production, but how they are able to get on the glass and contribute in a positive way.”