Wilkinson approaches finale with humility

Saturday, senior forward will write final Kohl Center chapter in his storied career

Mike Wilkinson has never been one for statistics. So do not trouble him with a portfolio that puts him squarely among the best players in University of Wisconsin men's basketball history.

Wilkinson does not want to hear it.

"It doesn't really matter," Wilkinson said. "We won. As long as it's a team playing that's what matters. I've always said it doesn't matter what I do stats-wise as long as we get victories."

The 6-foot-8 senior forward from tiny Blue Mounds, Wis., will finish his UW career in the top 10 in at least 11 career categories, including points, rebounds and blocked shots. But the only record that matters to him is 87-35, the Badgers' mark in the four years he has donned the school's cardinal and white uniforms.

The 87 wins is a four-year program record, a mark that Wilkinson and fellow senior Clayton Hanson have each had a share in producing from the 2001-02 to 2004-05 seasons.

"We're not done yet," Wilkinson said. "Hopefully we can add to it. We'll see where it is when we are all said and done."

This is Wilkinson's fifth year on campus, having taken a much-celebrated redshirt in 2000-01, a year after winning Mr. Basketball honors at Wisconsin Heights High School.

Four years later, after playing a starring role in Wisconsin's rise to perennial Big Ten power, Wilkinson will play his last home game and last Big Ten regular season game when the Badgers host Purdue at 1:32 p.m. at the Kohl Center here Saturday.

Nostalgia can wait.

"As a senior, once you hit halfway, you never know when your season's going to be over," said Wilkinson, who is averaging 14.8 points and team-best 7.3 rebounds per game this season. "You could get injured and you'd be done right then. You just got to play hard every time you step on the floor."

Wilkinson famously grew up on a farm some 30 miles west of Madison. As he progressed through high school and AAU basketball, he never thought he would play Division I ball, never imagined he would be standing where he is today: one of the best players in the Big Ten, with a shot at a professional career.

The NBA can wait too.

"Hopefully we still have a lot of basketball left to play here and I don't have to worry about that for a while," Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson still has work to do. There are still lessons to be learned in practice, post moves that can be perfected, minutia of his game that can be tweaked. That is what has made Mike Wilkinson the player he is today — a tireless work ethic, paired with a selfless devotion to his team.

"I look around and looking for somebody I would want to shape my work ethic after, it would be him," sophomore forward Alando Tucker said.

Lessons learned, lessons taught

For Wilkinson, redshirting four years ago was clearly the right decision. He spent the year learning, and enduring physical abuse, from veteran big men Mark Vershaw, Andy Kowske and Charlie Wills.

"I used to get killed by Vershaw and Kowske," Wilkinson said. "All those guys, they were just so much bigger than me, they could back me down and score at will."

Wilkinson weighed 205 pounds back then. He has worked hard to build strength since and now checks in at 240. The additional muscle mass has helped Wilkinson start all 90 Badger games over the past three years.

Now, it is young posts like true freshman Greg Stiemsma, redshirt freshman Brian Butch and redshirt sophomore Jason Chappell who can look to Wilkinson for advice, while striving to learn from him in practice.

"You just learn so much on the court from what he does, how he carries himself and the way he plays," Stiemsma said.

In practices, games, on offense or defense, with or without the ball, Wilkinson is exhibit A for his teammates. Consider the 7-second drill, a 5-on-5 game simulation where a player receives the ball in the post and has seven seconds to make a decision and execute it. What is the defense trying to take away? What post moves could work? Where are the passing lanes?

Wilkinson's ability to think on the fly and execute a variety of basketball skills with proficiency during game action is replicated every day on the practice floor.

"Everything you do in the post is to counter how the guy on you plays and how the help reacts to you," UW coach Bo Ryan said. "Mike is the best guy we have at it right now."

Said Tucker: "Ever since I've been here, I know he's always had a tough attitude and so he's just always going to work hard at everything. That's one thing I admire."

From Blue Mounds to the NBA?

Few thought Wilkinson would blossom into an NBA prospect, least of all himself. But his continued hard work has paid dividends.

A second-team All-Big Ten selection last season, Wilkinson has developed into one of the most respected players in the conference. After tag-teaming with Devin Harris a year ago, Wilkinson has emerged as the Badgers' best player and its leader, both on and off the court.

"He's just a worker," Stiemsma said. "He's here to get after it. He's been our leader all year."

Wilkinson, however, is planted firmly in the here-and-now. Thoughts of agents and pre-draft camps will wait until after UW's run in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. But the simple fact that Wilkinson has a shot at the NBA is a feat in itself. Only two former Badgers are currently in the league – Harris and Michael Finley, each with the Dallas Mavericks.

Love and basketball

Anyone who has cast even a casual glance at the Badgers this year probably knows that Wilkinson is engaged to Alexis Schrubbe, a member of the UW band who often sings the national anthem before UW home games.

Schrubbe will complete her undergraduate degree in May, and the couple will be married later that month.

Schrubbe plans to attend graduate school or law school wherever Wilkinson's professional basketball career takes them. If the pros are not in his future, Wilkinson could return to the classes in the fall. He finished his undergraduate degree in August and will be one year short of completing a master's in agricultural economics after this semester.

At some point in the future Wilkinson hopes to return to the countryside, possibly owning a farm like the one he grew up on.

"We have talked about wanting to be in the country, wanting to have some space, but not giving up some of the stuff that you can get with a good education in town," Wilkinson said. "It is going to be a compromise somewhere. But eventually we would still like to have some land in the future."

Sparkling résumé

Wilkinson has dashed aside a who's who of Wisconsin basketball history while rewriting swathes of the Badgers' record book. On the scoring list alone he has passed the likes of Harris, Sean Mason, Clarence Sherrod, Dale Koehler, Wes Matthews and Tracy Webster this season.

The numbers are staggering. Wilkinson is currently seventh all-time in scoring (1,431 points), first in offensive rebounds (298), fifth in total rebounds (797), fifth in steals (159), third in blocked shots (113), fifth in free throws made and attempted (371 of 502), sixth in games played (122), 10th in starts (90), 10th in field goals made (485) and third in minutes played (3,758).

Statistics do not tell the whole story, but they do paint a picture of one of the greatest basketball players in UW history.

"Basically all I was looking at coming in was just to help the team win some games," Wilkinson said. "Just trying to become as good as you can be."

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