At 6-foot-5 and averaging just 1.5 rebounds per game, Clayton Hanson was not the most likely player on the court to lead Sunday's Big Ten Tournament Championship game in rebounds.
That, however, is exactly what the unassuming Hanson did, corralling a career-high seven boards in Wisconsin's 70-53 win over Illinois, including one over, or rather, in front of, 7-2 Illini center Nick Smith.
"I think most of the rebounds were just boxing out, I try to do that all the time and the ball just came up," Hanson said. "It wasn't like I was skying over too many guys."
The art of boxing out—the technique and determination necessary to succeed in that venture—is exemplary of the characteristics that have made Hanson, a walk-on from Reedsburg, Wis., an increasingly important cog in Wisconsin's success.
"He just always seems to be in the right spot at the right time and he is hungry," assistant coach Greg Gard said. "He knows he has to play hard, play aggressive and be very hard-nosed for him to be on the floor. He probably leads the team in floor burns. He's leading the team in charges. He's everywhere. He really brings a spark and some energy off the bench."
"He is playing hard, he's giving it all he's got and he's busting his butt out there and now good things are starting to happen for him," senior guard Freddie Owens said.
Hanson burst onto the scene against Michigan Jan. 21 when he scored 17 points in only 18 minutes, hitting five out of six 3-point attempts. It was not the first time Hanson had made an impression with his shooting stroke—he went 4-for-4 beyond the 3-point arc in a game against Northwestern last season. The 20 minutes Hanson reaped against the Wildcats that day, however, was the only time he received double-digit minutes in his first two seasons in Madison.
This campaign has been radically different. Hanson is not likely to score in double figures often—it has only happened four times this season—but he has established himself as a consistent contributor who brings a complete game to the court.
"He can come and take you in the post; has developed a pretty good jump-hook and he can finish around the basket," Gard said. "It makes him a tough matchup when you have someone who can play inside or outside, shoots so well and is so active, you have to have a guy who really wants to work to guard him."
After playing sparingly his first two seasons, Hanson's playing time has steadily increased. He is averaging 19.1 minutes per game this year, 25.3 the past 14 games, in which he played at least 21 minutes in all but one game. Other than his 38 percent 3-point shooting (44 percent in Big Ten games), Hanson's statistics—4.8 points, 0.8 assists per game—do not jump off the stat sheet. Along with junior forward Zach Morley, however, Hanson is frequently one of the first two players off the bench because of his aggressive, intelligent play.
"I think it is something that started three years ago when he got on campus," Gard said. "He just continually tried to get better. He is somebody that has worked extremely hard in the offseason. He is always putting in extra time. It is just his work habits that have made him what he is and have continued to make him a better and better player."
Hanson originally planned to play for head coach Bo Ryan as a scholarship athlete at UW-Milwaukee. When Ryan landed the Wisconsin job, Hanson followed him to Madison and walked on. He toiled on the scout team his first two years, learning from the likes of former Badger Kirk Penney and current starter Owens.
"(Hanson) has become our best player without the ball as far as movement," Gard said. "He reads screens and uses screens as well as anybody we've had. I think some of that came from working with Kirk Penney and studying under him and how he moved away from the ball."
The scout team work also helped Hanson improve defensively.
"I got a chance the last two years to guard Kirk and Freddie," Hanson said. "Going up against great players like that every day, they make you better. Also, just being in the right spots. A lot of defense is positioning and then just anticipation. And there are things with strength and conditioning where you can really work on your quickness."
Hanson's improvement behind the scenes and Wisconsin's injury problems, opened the door this season.
"I had some opportunities with the injuries in the beginning of the year," Hanson said. "I had to keep building off of that."
"When he's had chances, when he's got a few minutes, he's made the most of them and that led to more minutes," Gard said. "He continues to do it every day in practice, it is not just when the lights go on and the fans go in the seats. As a coaching staff we are always looking for those that can get it done in practice, day-in and day-out, and we reward those people with extra minutes."
Now, it is quite common to see Hanson on the court with games on the line, as he was when he hit one of the most memorable shots of the season to-date, a 3-pointer against Michigan State that gave the Badgers a 62-58 lead in overtime on their way to a 68-64 win.
"He has always worked hard," Owens said. "People are just starting to see it now. We always knew how hard he works in practice. We see him every day. It was just a matter of other people seeing him."