MADISON – Forward Andy Van Vliet knows there will be an opportunity next season to be a major contributor, fully aware that Wisconsin has to replace a pair of low-post players who have started a combined 171 games over the course of their career.
That’s the silver lining for Van Vliet, who has yet to make his mark for the Badgers.
Lauded for his ability as a shooter coming into the program, the 7-0 Van Vliet has only played 46 total minutes in 13 games this season, registering a total of 18 points and 19 rebounds. Take out the nine points and five rebounds he had during a productive eight minutes in a 53-point win over Florida A&M, the numbers shrink even further.
When No.24 Wisconsin (23-8) heads to Washington this weekend for the Big Ten tournament, starting with a Friday quarterfinal match-up against seventh-seed Iowa or 10th-seed Indiana, Van Vliet will likely be seating at the end of the bench to be used in an emergency situation or a blowout.
Stats suggest one thing, but assistant coach Howard Moore says this season has been far from a lost cause for the Belgian.
“This year he has a chance to really experience the physicality in our league,” Moore said. “Even before we got into conference, playing in the nonconference season and seeing the speed of the game at this level, seeing what he has to work on, seeing where he has to improve was big for him. He has to get stronger, match the physicality in the post and not give up any leverage. That’s where he has to continue to grow.”
Van Vliet’s college basketball journey is not even two years old but has already forced him to deal with a myriad of issues. A year ago Van Vliet was hoping to make an early impact but had to sit out after being ruled ineligible by the N.C.A.A. because of a complex eligibility issue.
Instead of being able to bond with teammates on road trips, he was forced to stay at a distance.
“Being by myself, (former walk-on) Jackson Bax and some of the managers who didn’t travel, I’d stay here and watch the game in the locker room, watch it alone or watch it with friends,” Van Vliet said. “It was frustrating not being able to travel, be around the team and then not play.”
Even meals have been an adjustment for Van Vliet, as the state’s affinity for German-style cooking wasn’t quite the same as being at home. The fascination with using ranch dressing as a dipping sauce was also a bizarre experience.
“I was like ‘why?’” Van Vliet said. “I’ve always had food because of my mom. Obviously I missed that. I started eating out more at Chipolte with the rice and chicken and making my own meals. At first the transition from my mom’s food to here was rough.”
Sometimes being out of sight and out of mind can cause a player to fall through the cracks, especially someone who has to go through such an extreme adjustment. While grounded for road games, Wisconsin made sure to constantly monitor Van Vliet to make sure he was handling the academic and social change.
“Everybody in our program matters,” Moore said. “We make sure they are monitored just as heavily as someone playing 30 minutes a game.”
Minus a handful of days where he was out with an ankle injury, Van Vliet has spent time worked extensively on the scout team going against senior forward Nigel Hayes and first-team All-Big Ten selection Ethan Happ.
“We challenge him as much as we can on the court and in practice,” Moore said. “We’ve coached him up. We don’t let him get away with a bad shot, not competing or not playing defense. You hold a kid accountable that way, reminded him that he’s not going to do that next year so why would you do it now? It’s about creating good habits.”
Outplayed in the preseason by sophomores Alex Illikainen and Charles Thomas, two reserves currently deep on head coach Greg Gard’s bench rotation, Van Vliet has started to show positive steps forward. The biggest differences from only a few months ago is his ability to be better with his low post moves, using his length to his advantage and understanding where he might have a match-up advantage. Most importantly, he has confidence.
“I read the game better,” he said. “My shooting is still there. That’s my main weapon, but I definitely understand my place.”
The offseason to-do list is long for Van Vliet, starting with continuing to add weight. Van Vliet estimates he steadily put on weight for a month before stalling at around 224 pounds. It’s been equally challenging throughout the grind of the season and his injury.
He finds solace in his conversations with redshirt freshman Brevin Pritzl, a member of his recruiting class who had to sit out last season after twice breaking his foot and is going through the ups and downs of a first-year player.
The fact that both of them have been healthy this season and for the most part available to play is a hurdle cleared.
“We talk about it sometimes about it’s finally our time,” Van Vliet said. “We can be on the bench and into the team. We can start having a chance to play.”
With four seniors graduating the program, including two in the low post, Wisconsin’s offseason will be a seven-month audition process. With his intangibles and skill set, Van Vliet’s window of opportunity will be opened.
“With a lot of front line guys leaving the program, you would hope that this offseason will be huge for him in terms of getting mentality prepared to go out and get some minutes,” Moore said. “I know he’s going to put the work in to get that opportunity.”