Men's hoops: Ready to take flight

Young Badgers eager for Saturday night's exhibition opener

With junior forward Alando Tucker firmly in control in the cockpit, University of Wisconsin men's basketball coach Bo Ryan finally has his Badgers ready to take-off this Saturday as they face UW-River Falls for an 8 p.m. tip-off in their first exhibition game of the season.

Speculation is running high about how Ryan will use this year's fresh crop of talent to fill the hefty gaps brought on by the graduation of five key players including Mike Wilkinson, who finished 2005 earning unanimous first-team All-Big Ten honors and led the Badgers to a 25-9 record and a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Tucker, who was selected to this year's preseason All-Big Ten team and is the Badgers' only returning starter, says he is excited to see for the first time how some of the young guys will perform in front of an electrified Kohl Center crowd this weekend. "We're going to see who's going to step up," he said.

The Badgers will rely heavily on returning players such as forward Ray Nixon, the team's lone senior, who led his team by scoring nine points at the Family Fun Day Red/White scrimmage last week. Ryan can look for considerable contributions from guards Kammron Taylor and Michael Flowers, and big men Brian Butch, Greg Stiemsma and Jason Chappell as well. They all gained valuable minutes last season and have been working hard in the off-season to compete.

But the Badgers will likely have to utilize their pool of young talent as they try for an invitation to the NCAA tournament for their eighth straight season. With six true freshmen and one that redshirted last season, it is anybody's guess as to who will play Saturday for the Badgers.

This week in practice the freshmen had ample opportunity as Ryan had the younger players scrimmage against their older teammates. The freshmen played tough and proved that they have earned the minutes they will receive this weekend.

Freshman guard Mickey Perry said Saturday's game is a dream come true. "I can't sleep, I can't think about anything but the game. I'm excited and I'm feeling hungry," he said after a grueling scrimmage on Wednesday.

Perry left practice wearing his high school letter jacket from Illinois' Proviso East, alma matter to 2005 Big Ten Player of the Year Dee Brown, Michigan State's Shannon Brown and UW's all-time leading scorer Michael Finley. "A lot of people back home are watching and they're all asking ‘What's Mickey gonna do?'" he said.

Freshman forward Marcus Landry was grinning when he described what it is like to scrimmage against his older teammates. "We can hang with them. We can play, too. I'm excited for Saturday," he said. Landry joins the Badgers from Vincent High School in Milwaukee where he was named a first-team all-state selection by the Associated Press for the past two consecutive years.

But as they look forward to the start of the season, Landry and Perry understand that seven freshmen is a lot. "Everybody does their share," Landry said. "I just want everyone to have their fair shot."

Perhaps the one Badger who has waited the longest for Saturday's game is freshman DeAaron Williams, who sat on the bench as a redshirt last season. "I've been waiting too long," he said. "Ever since I committed here I've been waiting for the chance to put on a uniform and play against other guys in uniform."

Completing the Badgers' freshmen class is powerful Joe Krabbenhoft from Sioux Falls, S.D., who has had some outstanding performances at practice, and walk-ons Devin Barry, Morris Cain and Kevin Gullickson.

Whoever is on the floor this Saturday will follow the lead of Tucker, the Badgers' explosive forward.

"Every time I step out on the court I feel like a leader," Tucker said. "Saturday I'm really going to see who is going to step up, see who is going to be that extra guy."

After leading the team in scoring last season (15.2 points per game), Tucker will play a major role in helping the younger guys approach Saturday's game.

"I'll tell the guys to just relax. In the locker room I will have open ears. I need to teach the guys how to prepare," Tucker said. "The younger guys need to learn external factors are so crucial to us. The fans, the pressure to perform in front of 17,000 people plays a big part."

This will be the first time in the team's history the Badgers face the Falcons but Ryan coached against UW-River Falls head coach Rick Bowen 26 times while he was head coach at UW-Platteville, winning 23 of those games.

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