When Wisconsin takes the floor this afternoon for its season opener with Penn, a new face will likely play a key role.
Forward Zach Morley, a junior college transfer, was one of the first players off the bench in the Badgers' exhibition games, contributing 16 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals total in victories over the EA Sports All Stars and the National Basketball Development League's Charleston Lowgators.
The latter game may be an early indication of Wisconsin's rotation and the role Morley will play. The Badgers started junior Devin Harris, sophomore Boo Wade and senior Freddie Owens at the guards with junior forward Mike Wilkinson and senior center Dave Mader. Morley and junior guard Clayton Hanson joined the starters with double-digit minutes. When the game was on the line down the stretch, all of the starters except Mader joined Morley on the floor.
The Lowgators roster consisted mainly of players with professional experience in overseas professional leagues or in the NBA, in addition to players fresh out of successful college careers.
"He is playing against men and he is boxing out, rebounding, attacking the glass, running the floor and those types of things that it doesn't take a lot of talent to do that it just takes effort," Wisconsin assistant coach Rob Jeter said.
Jeter began recruiting Morley last December, wooing the Maryville, Mo. native to Madison. Morley certainly exhibited talent, averaging 15.2 points and 8.2 rebounds last season for Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College.
"There are not many two-year guys that come in here and this group is such a tight group, in the recruiting process that is one of the things you want to identify is will he fit in," Jeter said. "I think he has done a good job of taking it day-by-day, getting better, learning his role and the guys have accepted him."
Morley's skills fit well at Wisconsin. At 6-8, 220 pounds, he has the size to work inside and combines that with a smooth shot and the athleticism to run the floor and play along the perimeter.
"This system really fits my style of play well," Morley said. "That is one of the main reasons I came here is that it allows me to play inside-outside."
Morley has good passing skills and has the ability to play across the frontcourt, drawing comparisons to Wilkinson, another versatile 6-8 forward.
"That is one of the guys that I watched whenever they sent tapes or I would watch them on TV," Morley said. "I watched him because coach Jeter told me they wanted me to be something similar to him, inside-outside, work hard, get down the floor, just play an all-around game."
"They are both relentless on the glass. They are both always looking to rotate and move. I think Mike is much stronger at this point," Jeter said. "I think what people see is two bigger than average guys who can step away from the basket and look comfortable."
As a transfer, Morley is in the unique position of being a new recruit with a veteran's perspective.
"It gives me a chance to have a little bit of both perspectives," Morley said. "I know what (freshmen) Brian (Butch) and Kamm (Taylor) are going through. It is your first time in college and getting used to classes and practice, but at the same time I have…gone through it."
Although he enjoyed exhibition success, Morley's playing time is far from set. Despite a spate of injuries prior to the season's opening tip, Wisconsin has solid depth with sophomore forward/center Andreas Helmigk, freshman guard Kammron Taylor and sophomore forward Ray Nixon set to join Morley and Hanson in the rotation off the bench. Starter Boo Wade has already recovered from a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee and played 26 minutes in Monday's exhibition with Charleston, contributing 15 points. Sophomore guard/forward Alando Tucker and sophomore forward/center Jason Chappell, are expected to return by mid-December. Still, Morley looks poised to earn a quality role after playing 25 minutes against the Lowgators.
"The idea of the exhibition games is to try to establish some type of continuity, some type of rotation," Jeter said. "We are looking for combinations, rotations, who is going to play minutes, those types of things. With (Morley) being on the floor a lot it is a good sign for him, but you've got to prove it every day. Guys are continually getting better so he has to do the same thing."
Wisconsin's coaches frequently talk about reserves needing to "add something" when they take the floor.
"I think what he adds is energy, the bounce off the floor and the length, because he's so long he can play multiple positions," Jeter said.
Jeter knows firsthand what Morley can bring to the table. He frequently participates in the team's scrimmages and drills in practice to add another body to the mix and often is matched with Morley.
"He is real smart, he knows how to use his body and he is a real crafty player," Morley said of his coach, then added, smiling, "He is older, not as athletic as he once was but he still knows how to use his body to get where he is going to get."
"I'm just trying to survive out there," Jeter laughed.