Butch, Stiemsma on the spot

Sophomore big men are in position to command minutes and will be challenged to step up this season

One thousand, eighty-one minutes — that is what the Badgers lost when Mike Wilkinson graduated from the University of Wisconsin last spring, and that is what sophomore big men Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma will be charged with filling when the men's basketball season begins.

That is a tall task for the two tallest players on the team at 6-foot-11 each. In fact, Stiemsma and Butch combined for just 288 minutes a year ago — just 27 of those Stiemsma's.

Add to that the fact that they are two of the most highly touted recruits to come out of the state of Wisconsin. The recipe is one of extremely high expectations for a couple of rather unproven sophomores.

Butch, an Appleton native, was a McDonald's All-American his senior year of high school. With Wilkinson taking the majority of minutes at one post position, however, and with a variety of personal setbacks along the way, Butch has not had much of a chance to prove himself.

It started when Butch first arrived in Madison. He redshirted his initial year to add much-needed weight and strength.

Now, as a sophomore, he has worked hard and is finally at the point where he wants to be physically.

"My body, I feel excited where it's at right now. It's finally at where I want it to be," Butch said during UW's media day last week. "My freshman year I came in and put on a lot of weight, but it wasn't good weight. Then I transferred it to good weight, and now I'm really where I want to be."

He got a chance to play in the early portions of last season, but never more than 20 minutes in a single game — usually finishing between 12 and 15 minutes per contest.

But to some — including ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb, who called Butch out as the most overrated player in the Big Ten — his performance was not enough.

Butch was limited by a pair of foot injuries during the first half of the season. Then, to top it all off, he came down with mononucleosis, which forced him to miss six games in the middle of the season, and he never returned to full form, playing just 35 minutes in the last eight games.

But the third-year sophomore is healthy and ready to go.

"I feel great right now," Butch said. "I really worked hard this summer to hopefully try to stop some of that stuff from happening."

Head coach Bo Ryan, who has always stood by the big man — especially after Gottlieb's statement — continues to back Butch up. He sees no reason for Butch to feel pressured or have a chip on his shoulder.

"I don't know why he would have [a chip on his shoulder]," Ryan said. "He's a basketball player that plays on a team at a great university and he's just happy to be a scholarship athlete and out there playing. I certainly don't want to be around people who have chips on their shoulder. The only thing a chip on my shoulder ever did for me was get me into fights on the playground.

"You don't have to prove anything to anyone else, first of all you've just got to prove to yourself that you work as hard as you can to be the best player you can and then that translates into being a good team player."

Butch was not shy in saying the same thing.

"I'm just going out there and just trying to play basketball, do something I love," he said. "I worked hard enough this summer and done the right things and if it doesn't work out, I know I've done everything possible. I put myself in position where I feel like I'm ready to go."

Among the things that Butch worked on over the summer was ball-handling — particularly with his left hand — as well as being more aggressive.

"I definitely need to look to be a little more aggressive," Butch said. "Last year it was kind of tough to be out there. You had guys that were proven. It was my goal to go out there and contribute any way that I could. Now I think I've got to look to be a little more aggressive, but also do it within the team concept."

Stiemsma also searching for bigger role

Stiemsma, a Randolph native, opted not to redshirt his freshman season and wound up playing just 27 minutes in 10 games.

He too had his share of setbacks, missing six weeks to begin the season with a right foot injury. But he does not regret playing as a true freshman and says he learned a lot from watching Wilkinson from the bench.

"Sitting on the sidelines you can learn a lot," Stiemsma said. "Especially watching guys like Mike Wilkinson and Clayton Hanson, how hard they worked all the time, you can do nothing but learn from guys like that."

He hopes to parlay what he learned into success on the court this season. Though he played sparingly last year, he showed glimpses of what he is capable of accomplishing.

Against Western Carolina, Stiemsma used his big frame and displayed a physical presence. He scored two points and had two big blocks in eight minutes of action.

The game fans will remember Stiemsma for last year, though, was the final game of the season — the Elite Eight game with North Carolina. Though he only tallied three minutes, he came off the bench and provided a boost for the Badgers with a big basket and some tough defense on Tar Heel center Sean May.

"I think the situation was just right. I was a guy who had been on the bench all first half," Stiemsma said. "I had fresh legs. After I scored that first basket, all the excitement and pressure went down."

He relates the feeling in that game to the feelings he's having heading into this season.

"Maybe that's starting to happen now," he said. "There's so many things going on in practice, trying to get a good start, and I've just got to kind of calm down a little bit, and just play, and not worry about things so much and just take things as they come."

Regardless, he still feels the pressure to stand up and prepare for the elite post players of the Big Ten.

"I think there's a lot a weight on our shoulders," Stiemsma said. "We've got some great players in the Big Ten offensive-wise with Terence Dials from Ohio State and Paul Davis from Michigan State. Those guys are the elite players, and if we can work hard and prepare for those guys we'll be all right."

Battling for playing time

While the pressure is on the "bigs" from Wisconsin to step up, it is quite clear that Ryan will not be handing out any playing time just to give fans from Wisconsin a look at their former high school standouts.

Ryan's program at UW always has been and always will revolve around playing the best players at each given position — not about pleasing the fans or awarding seniority.

"We're all trying to fit the roles and we're all trying to figure out where we go," Butch said. "It's tough to replace as many seniors as we had so I think it's going to be more than one person to fill those shoes."

Ryan knows that the big men have a lot to work on before the season begins, and especially emphasized their passing.

"Butch and Stiemsma have to become better passers and take care of the ball better," Ryan said. "That's an area that I'm really concerned with right now — they have to pass it better, and when they move their feet better and they get stronger, and a little bit more comfortable, they'll be better."

With that said, one of the more intriguing options the Badgers will have at their disposal this season is playing both Stiemsma and Butch at the same time.

"That's exciting to think about what it might be, but we're just going to have to make sure that we're all ready to go," Butch said. "Coach is going to put the best five out there.

"Whatever it is, we'll be ready to play."

Ryan did not shy away from the idea of playing the two together, but he also was not shy about saying they could both be on the bench together.

"There's no problem with playing the two of them together … if they're the best players, if they can get more done," Ryan said. "Any combination out there, if we go with two seven-footers or we go with two 6-5s it'll be because they have, in practice, proven that they can handle it the best."

That is the challenge facing the two big sophomores from Wisconsin as the season approaches.

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