MADISON – While his dressed teammates went through pregame stretching drills before tipoff of a Sunday afternoon game against Maryland last month, freshman forward Aleem Ford – dressed in a black Badgers jumpsuit – was able to get a ball and throw up a couple quick shots.
It was his way of getting a little bit of work in while reminding himself of what is to come.
“It’s important to get these guys out here, see how they can improve and if they can get on the court that first year,” assistant coach Howard Moore said. “Ethan (Happ) was able to do it, guys in the past were able to do it after their redshirt year. We’re hoping Aleem is the next guy to come off a redshirt and get out there and play.”
One of two players redshirting this season, Ford has been the scout team sponge this season for Wisconsin, trying to soak up every bit of knowledge he can on his opponents while trying to improve his game. The Badgers are slated to lose two senior forwards next season and Ford – who has worked on gaining weight during his recruiting season – is trying to push himself to have a role.
As a result the Wisconsin’s staff has tried to make Ford the best player or the biggest offensive threat of the opposition. That’s allowed him to get a lot of shots and be well defended by the first-team offense, going against everything from Nigel Hayes and Zak Showalter on down the list to see if he can get some shots off.
“He can figure out what his strengths are going to be,” Moore said. “He’s growing into year two. Adding some size to that versatility is going to continue to help him develop his game and put him in position next year to fight for some minutes. That’s always the goal.”
While some treat a redshirt season as a mental break, Ford said he has stayed in attack mode in hopes of putting himself in position to where he can have a role – however small – next season. That internal drive is nothing new, considering Ford transferred from a Georgia high school to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., last year to focus solely on basketball.
“When I first got to IMG, I didn’t have any division 1 schools recruiting me,” Ford said, saying his interest list was limited to division 2 programs. “Over time my game started developing, the season started and getting notice from a couple coaches was definitely cool.”
Wisconsin wasn’t in the market for a 6-7 forward, but the Badgers were certainly happy they stumbled upon him by accident.
Knowing that the program needed a point guard, head coach Greg Gard spent his time as the interim head coach tracking point guard D'Mitrik Trice at IMG Academy. The younger brother of Travis Trice, who he had recruited, Gard knew the family and heard good things about the young point guard who doubled as a high school quarterback.
Once Gard was given the permanent job in March and Wisconsin’s season ended in the Sweet 16, Gard traveled down to watch Trice and said he “knew in 10 minutes” that Trice’s instincts, quickness and high character would be a perfect fit at Wisconsin.
As he watched Trice, a rangy, skinny forward kept catching his eye with the bounce he had off the floor.
“(Associate head coach) Lamont (Paris) was with me at the time and I said we’ve got to check out who this guy is,” Gard said. “All the coaches that were there at the time kind of migrated to that court. We found out who is was and sent Coach Moore back another week.”
Moore reaffirmed what Gard saw and the wheels were put in motion. According to Ford, Wisconsin saw a player with versatility who can guard multiple positions, expand the floor and, “of course, shoot.”
“I like his potential,” Gard said of Ford. “He’s very skilled, a good athlete, long, high IQ, picks up things really quick, asks the right questions, so he’s going to be a good player here.”
He’s also benefited by having Trice alongside of him. Becoming friends at IMG, the two have been labeled “inseparable” by their teammates. They room together, they work out together and they committed on their official visit together.
Trice credits Ford with part of his success this season, which has seen him play all 30 games (two starts) and average 5.8 points on 39.9 percent shooting, a team-best 43.5 percent from three and a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“It’s awesome to have him always to fall back to,” Trice said. “We’re really honest with each other when we get back to the room after practice to see how you think you felt today or how you think you did. We’ll always be brutally honest with each other and that always helps. We’ve been friends for a long time.”
That friendship could pay dividends for Wisconsin in a couple years, all starting with a chance encounter on a spring day in Florida.
“Coming on the visit with D’Mitrik was something I had interest in because he’s a great teammate,” Ford said. “Getting a chance to play for a winning program with guys coming back I could learn from, that excited me a lot. I knew it was something I wanted to do.
“For Wisconsin to come down and be recruiting D’Mitrik, and for us to be on the same team that day, and then recruiting me after that was definitely a dream.”