New challenge for Butch

Sophomore forward has struggled with injury and ineffective play since top reserves left the lineup

Even before Brian Butch stepped onto the University of Wisconsin campus there were huge expectations for the Appleton, Wis. native. Butch was a McDonald's All-American, a first-team Parade All-American, a finalist for the Naismith award and a two-time state player of the year. At the McDonald's game Badgers fans were given a quick glimpse of his silky smooth jump shot as he won one of the shooting competitions.

Butch arrived on campus as one of the most anticipated recruits in school history. However, he was rail thin. He weighed only 210 pounds, which is nothing on a 6-foot-11 frame. Butch decided to redshirt the season in order to put on weight. In doing so, he became the first McDonald's All-American to ever redshirt his freshman year.

The big man took advantage of his redshirt opportunity. He spent the year learning the intricacies of UW coach Bo Ryan's system, while beefing up in the weight room. Butch put on 30 pounds of muscle that year. It took a little while, but once he got going in the 2004-05 season, Butch looked like he would be a major factor for the Badgers off of the bench. He provided intensity and interior toughness for a team that sometimes lacked just that.

However, injuries and family issues began to catch up with the big man. He missed a lot of practices due to a leg injury, while dealing with his mother's battle with cancer. She eventually recovered, but Butch's season continued to sour.

During halftime of the Illinois game last January, ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb called out Brian Butch as the most overrated player in the Big Ten. He claimed that because Butch was a McDonald's All-American, who was not putting up a lot of points, he was a failure.

Just a few weeks later, Butch came down with a bout of mononucleosis, which sidelined him for a few weeks. When he returned, he was not the same player. His energy and intensity that endeared him to Badger fans early in the year were missing. He played a minimal role in Wisconsin's run to the Elite Eight.

After his tumultuous redshirt freshman year, Butch returned this season with a vengeance. With the graduation of four starters, he was asked to play a much bigger role. During the preseason, coaches and players alike sang the praises of Butch's increased presence both on and off the court.

Butch opened the regular season with a career-high 23 points and seven rebounds in a victory over Norfolk State. He followed up that strong effort with double doubles against Wake Forest (19 points and 10 rebounds) and Louisiana Tech (18 points and 10 boards). After a victory against Northwestern on Jan. 14, the Badgers were 14-2 and sat alone atop the Big Ten standings.

Then, things came crashing down for Wisconsin. Last week, freshman forward Marcus Landry announced that he had been ruled academically ineligible for this semester. Sophomore center Greg Stiemsma followed suit two days later—in a statement he said that depression had led to poor grades. Those announcements came just a few weeks after freshman forward DeAaron Williams left the team. He has since transferred to Illinois Central College.

"Every team goes through adversity and at this point we have to find a way to beat it," junior forward Alando Tucker said. "That's what we're doing right now. And the good thing is that we're still in the race for first. We have to look more to the positives than to the negatives."

Without Landry and Stiemsma to provide depth off of the bench, Butch will be asked to assume a larger role. He likely will have to play more minutes, score more points, block more shots and stay out of foul trouble.

In UW's first game without Landry and Stiemsma, a loss at Ohio State, Butch went down with an ankle injury. He would return, but his minutes and production have been limited since and the Badgers have lost three of their last four games.

Wisconsin needs Butch to be on the floor if they are to be successful. Butch said Sunday that his ankle feels fine, but he has averaged just five points per game in Wisconsin's last three contests. Tucker has noticed that the big man has been pressing a little bit of late.

"Brian just has to slow everything down," Tucker said. "He needs to slow the game down. I think he's putting too much on himself. He's thinking too much and it's bringing down his game. He needs to let everything come to him. With the loss of Greg (Stiemsma), he feels it's all on him to make up for it and that's not true. He knows he's been forcing it. Even his jump shot has not looked fluid. He's been kind of timid."

Butch understands that his team needs him in order to succeed. He has often been criticized for not using his big body more and taking smaller defenders into the post. He likes to sit out on the perimeter and shoot jump shots, which is unorthodox for a player with his size and strength.

However, in Saturday's 85-76 loss to Michigan, Butch made a conscious effort to take the ball inside.

"When your shot's not feeling right, you got to try to get in a little closer and get an easier shot," Butch said. He played poorly in the game, but he is clearly working hard to improve.

Despite the rough stretch, the Badgers are still tied for first place near the midpoint of the conference season.

"(Brian) has to understand that we can't wait until the end of the year," Tucker said. "Everything has to gel and even looking at him during practice today, he was more relaxed, everything is coming to him so I think he understands what he has to do."

Butch has had a turbulent beginning to his Wisconsin career and has struggled to live up to expectations, but anyone who has seen him play for an extended period of time has seen flashes of just how special of a basketball player he is. He will be one of the keys to whether or not the Badgers can right the ship and win the conference title this season.

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