Never Too Close For Comfort

How everything from Gavinski's voice to Tucker's laugh can matter in the end.

A year ago there were two hot teams in the Madness, among others, who had once sat atop the polls during the course of the season. One of them – the Florida Gators – certainly had talent, but probably not the most in the country. They were young and inexperienced and, well, the University of Florida, which was all you needed to say in hoops circles.

The other wore jerseys that read "Connecticut." Its two-time national champion coach recruited a group of starters with NBA talent at every position on the floor. They were supposed to be good. They indeed were – just not good enough. Of course we all remember the Huskies fateful loss to a merry band of overachievers from George Mason – the epitome of the phrase "greater than the sum of its parts."

There is a method to be mined from the Madness in this case. And while we in the media continue to tout the depth of Bo Ryan's bench, the star power of an Alando Tucker left guarded one-on-one, and the massive lift of true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, and simply fresh men returned from troubles; don't think the team itself doesn't realize the alluded lesson.

"I think the better teams are the teams that gel together and know each other real well," said Kammron Taylor.

As for his own squad? "We just gel," he said.

Coming off a year in which a group of young men were forced to face challenges, adjust, and grow up with each other's support, nearly the entire unit has returned. You can tell they feel comfortable together – laughing, teasing, and understanding one another to a greater extent.

"It made us a great deal stronger, because we just started realizing – and I know myself, I've said this before with Greg [Steimsma] and Marcus [Landry] – I realized there's a lot of things I didn't know about my teammates," said Alando Tucker – resident social captain in addition to court leader.

"It's one of those things that, I wanted to take a conscious effort along with my teammates to try to do more extra stuff and get to know each other, because we're here. We're a family. Doing extra stuff off the court – I think that we've done so much off the court socially it just carries on into the game, in locker room situations. And that has made us stronger."

They don't keep a stat for that in the box score. But then, the only stat anyone inside this group cares about is the one under "Standings." So when the team picked up a victory Sunday evening in the opener against Mercer, there were Taylor, Tucker and Joe Krabbenhoft facing a small-as-it-figures-to-get press corps. They sat there armed with a barrage of laughs, one-liners and teasing remarks directed at the young guy, (i.e. Krabbenhoft).

There they are again in practice, the day after poor free throw shooting became an issue on the court and in the newspapers. Were they stiff or worried? It appeared not, as the entire team one-by-one walked up to the line and sank their attempts. That is, until the final Badger missed a chance to make it a perfect 100 percent, and the players burst out in a bit of chuckling.

That says something. One, that Wisconsin can shoot free throws better than 44 percent. But secondly, it raises a question: what team that isn't close can openly laugh at the guy who ruins a perfect streak? Barring the mean-spirited ones, probably none.

"It feels good to win, but we keep things in perspective," Krabbenhoft said. "This is a real close-knit team. It starts from the top with guys like Kamm and Tuck and Chappell – the older guys who have been around for a while. I think they'd say the same thing – that this is a pretty close group we've got."

On the court it was Krabbenhoft the Enforcer who provided the Sunday spark to accompany the two players who figure to again serve as Wisconsin's top scoring options. Only, this year there are plenty of additional weapons in Coach Bo Ryan's arsenal. He said Sunday night that he didn't care if it was a different one of them who stepped up every night, so long as somebody does it.

Realizing their dependency on each other to get anything done is what will make the difference between the talent on this team going the way of, say Michigan State of a year ago, versus that of Iowa. Last season the Spartans had all the talent and the early season hype, only to fizzle and never really come together in an inspired team effort. The Hawkeyes – a group with arguably less raw talent at each spot on the floor – conversely united as a cohesive, complementary unit that made a run at the Big Ten before peaking in the conference tournament. (Although they did ultimately slip on the Dance Floor).

"I've seen other teams with a lot of talent but they were all individuals," Tucker said. "And individuals can't be the team. I've learned that since I've been here. Coach Ryan and the coaching staff have placed that in our heads – that individuals can't be the team.

"Iowa's a great example of that. They had a team, a true team that everybody played a part. That's the same thing. We have a lot of talent, but everybody has to play a part here, and every role is key for us."

Every role?

Well, we know Tucker's roles – scoring the basketball being high amongst them. We also know he is, as he suggests, a "very social, very vocal, very fun-loving guy." You can ask his teammates about that, and it would be true. (Already this year I've spied him attempting to pull off both the Carlton Banks and the robot – the latter out of sheer post-practice boredom, when I might have been the only one watching.)

We know Taylor's role too, in a sense. The same goes with J-Bo, Stitches Krabbenhoft, the quiet "businessman" Michael Flowers, newly appointed Secretary of Defense Steimsma, and the rest of the critical cogs in the rotation.

But no one can discount the intangibles. And for that, everyone also has a role. The "know your teammate" comedic surveys and increased visits to the Ryan household shed light on the fact that everything matters. Which is why, of course, those whom you might not expect could be difference-makers in the end.

"Oh, man," Krabbenhoft grinned. "Even though [J.P. Gavinski] is redshirting, he's going to have a big impact on this team – especially from a mental standpoint."

Krabbenhoft laughs just at the thought of his lovable teammate. "Easing the tension – that's one way to put it."

"He's just one of those guys that, he just walks around, he loafs around and you look at him and it's just an automatic laugh," Tucker added. Gavinski, of course, has come across in stories from players and Ryan alike as the kid you just have to love. In the team jokester category, Gavinski may have already bested Tucker without even trying.

"You look at the way he carries himself, the way he talks – I always make fun of the way he talks – slow, dragged out," Tucker began to laugh with the shake of his head. "It sounds like somebody screwed his voice up and just slowed it down. So whenever he comments, he doesn't even try to be funny. He'll make a comment and he's dead serious, and we'll all laugh. It's one of those things that, he's just a sight to see."

Who knows what that humor and camaraderie might mean in the face of a cold streak or a setback. It might make a world of difference. Then again, it might only make for a memorable pizza party. But as long as we're hypothesizing in lieu of performance analysis, it's worth noting that it's there.

"Yeah, I think that some people like [the media] should notice that," Krabbenhoft said. "I think it's noticeable that guys are clicking out there – we're getting along."

Krabbenhoft realizes they haven't lost anything yet. He says they'll hit a bump. No one's looking ahead to it, but that day will come, he acknowledged. He thinks they'll be ready this time. They all do.

"I think just getting the whole unit back," Tucker attributed it to. "It's one of those things that we've been together a while and now we just understand each other, what makes each other laugh…and also how we can disturb each other."

As Taylor himself pointed out, when you look at a team like the Gators, "on any given night, somebody would step up." Being tight-knit is not going to make that happen. The day it does, Ryan will start off practice around center court in a cross-legged open forum.

Yet, becoming a unit is a factor not to be overlooked – like guard rotation or perimeter defense or anything else. True, it doesn't merit a stat line. But it shows through in the one that matters.

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