MADISON – Although his shot wasn’t falling, sophomore Alex Illikainen had demonstrated enough awareness and ability to shoot the open jumper that he began the season as one of head coach Greg Gard’s first options off the bench.
That hasn’t been the case in recent weeks.
After playing at least 14 minutes in Wisconsin’s first six games, including a career-high 21 minutes at Creighton, Illikainen has been MIA since late November, playing double-digit minutes only twice in 13 games.
When Wisconsin (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten) – which dropped four spots to No.11 in this week’s Associated Press poll – travels to Michigan (16-9, 6-6) Thursday, Illikainen will have not played in the last five outings.
“Confidence gets used a lot with Alex, but I think he’s just continuing to work and help this team,” Wisconsin assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft said. “When the minutes weren’t there earlier in the year, he was doing things to help this team. Whether it’s on the floor for 12 minutes or eight minutes or none at all, he’s contributed to this team’s success.”
Illikainen hasn’t had much success with his shot over his two seasons at Wisconsin. After shooting 41.3 percent (26-for-63) and averaging 2.2 points as a true freshman, Illikainen admitted in the offseason that he too often passed up open shots in favor of the upperclassmen.
After appearing to be more active in the exhibition season, which included scoring 14 points in 16 minutes off the bench in a closed door scrimmage against Northern Iowa, Illikainen is 32.3 percent (10-for-31) this season. It fits in with the team-wide shooting epidemic, but some critical defensive mistakes against Penn State Jan.24 has put Illikainen on the bench in favor of Aaron Moesch and Charles Thomas.
Illikainen has worked primarily with the scout team since, according to Krabbenhoft.
“I think Coach Gard is going with the hot hand,” Krabbenhoft said. “That can change throughout the year. Right now Charlie (Thomas) is doing a great job. He’s really improving and getting that confidence back.”
Gard on Northwestern Ending
In a play that was broken down like the Zapruder film on local talk shows, Gard said he’s already moved on from a postgame conversation between he and his assistants and Northwestern head coach Chris Collins that ranged from apologetic to slightly animated.
The basis of the conversation surrounded Sanjay Lumpkin’s emphatic dunk with 4.6 seconds left to put Northwestern up by 10 points instead of dribbling out the clock.
“I really didn’t have any issue with the dunk,” Gard said. “We’ve had it done to us before and we had it happen once a long time ago, too. It was a spur-of-the-moment, excitement-of-the-moment type of play. If there is any issue we’ll handle it privately with Chris and I.”
To recap, after a quick handshake by Gard as the final seconds were expiring, Collins spoke at length with Wisconsin assistants Lamont Paris and Krabbenhoft. Collins said after the game he was apologizing for the dunk.
Cameras also caught Collins hollering something at the direction of Gard as the Northwestern head coach was shaking the hand of UW strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland. The camera panned to see Gard turning around and being ushered by UW assistant Howard Moore to the locker room.
“There was a lot more things that we had to worry about in that game than what happened the last nine seconds,” Gard said. “We put ourselves in that position, and they were better than us for that 40 minutes for the most of it. Now we’ve got to figure things out, get better and move on to Michigan.”
Resting the Weary
Playing three of its next four on the road, Wisconsin kicks off the road swing with a Michigan team that has won of four of its last six since losing 68-64 in Madison Jan.17. Those wins include a sweep of Indiana for the first time since 1994-95 and beating Michigan State by 29 at home.
That will make the three days between Sunday’s loss and Thursday’s tip critical for Gard, who has dealing with a handful of players going through injuries. Bronson Koenig has been out of sorts with his shot since suffering a left leg injury Jan.24; Vitto Brown is coming back from a leg injury suffered around the same time and sophomore reserve Andy Van Vliet didn’t suit up Sunday after rolling his left ankle in Friday’s practice.
“We’ve got a lot of guys kind of nicked here and there,” Gard said. “It’s just what it is. It’s the nature of the season. As much as you try to regulate that, and I tried to govern that early in the year and disperse minutes and regulate minutes, it still happens. We've backed off practice considerably not only in length with everybody, but the guys who have been getting more minutes, we’ve backed off those and gotten less reps.”