Author: Matthew Budkofsky
Last season was one to forget for the Badger faithful. The Badgers finished the season under .500 with a record of 15-18 and won just 7 games in conference play. The team did not make one appearance in the AP Top 25 rankings at any point in the season. This ultimately resulted in the program missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998, snapping one of the longest streaks in the nation. This season the Badgers appear to be off to a much better start. They’re 5-1 and made a national statement by avenging last year’s loss against Xavier. The Badgers are finally ranked in the top 25 again, and just finished up a great tournament run in the Bahamas this past week while competing in the Battle 4 Atlantis. The Badgers took second place in a competitive tournament where they rolled through the first two rounds, defeating Stanford 62-46 followed by a win the next day against a previously undefeated Oklahoma team, 78-58. Unfortunately, in the championship game the Badgers ended up losing to the nationally ranked number 4 Virginia Cavaliers by 7 points, 53-46. These Badgers though, only get better with every game they play, and these are three things specifically to be excited about this season.
- The backcourt is finally healthy
Wisconsin entered last season searching to replace the best senior class that ever came through the program. After losing guys like Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter, the starting backcourt gig was up for grabs. Many expected sophomore D’Mitrik Trice to take the reins and show incoming freshman like Kobe King and Brad Davison the ropes. However, Trice and King were limited to just 10 games each due to foot and knee injuries, respectively. In this time, Davison emerged as a formidable player, as he was one of just two Badgers to average double figures in points. But he played the whole year with a dislocated shoulder that seemed to pop out every time he hit the floor. In fact, it popped out eight times in games last year but he has since had surgery in the offseason to repair that. A healthy season ahead for Brad Davison hopefully.
The return of Trice and King has helped the Badgers tremendously. Trice is one of the leaders on the team in scoring with 16.8 points per game and is off to a scorching start of the season. Having Trice on the floor helps open up everything for the offense. Both Trice and Davison can handle the ball and facilitate Wisconsin’s trademark half-court offense. Both guards command a lot of attention on the wings, which really helps open things up in the paint for studs like Ethan Happ. More importantly, with both guys able to take over on offense, it allows Khalil Iverson to focus his efforts to the defensive side of the court, where he is at his best.
Kobe King comes off the bench but is the stabilizing force the second unit desperately needs. Last season, when Davison wasn’t on the floor, Wisconsin had nobody they could turn to, to handle the ball and run the offense. This put a lot of pressure on guys like Happ to do more than usual, and the offense often stalled. King may not light up the stat sheet every night, but he is growing into a vital piece of the rotation that’ll help keep the Badgers’ second unit in games when the starters need a rest.
- Getting back to basics
Wisconsin is known to play a very specific brand of basketball. It’s no secret their goal is to slow the game down, play smart offense in the half-court, work for a high-quality shot, and play tough-nosed defense. Despite the small sample size, Wisconsin has been able to do exactly that so far this season. Through 6 games, the Badgers are rebounding and taking care of the ball better than last season. In each game, they won the rebounding battle and turned the ball over less than the other team. In fact, they have yet to turn the ball over more than 13 times in a single game. This is exactly how Greg Gard wants his team to play. After the Badgers win against Houston Baptist, Gard explained this and talked about how he wants the team “to continue working on becoming more consistent. The goal is to become better by becoming more consistent.” When a team plays great defense and takes care of the ball, they are very hard to beat (especially come tournament times), and Wisconsin has been a perfect example of this over the past decade.
- Ethan Happ is an All-American
Ethan Happ is off to a blistering start of the season. The senior center has awarded Big Ten Player of the Week for the third consecutive time to begin the season. So far this season, Happ is averaging 18 points per game, 12.5 rebounds per game, 5.5 assists per game, 1 steal per game, and 1.5 blocks per game. Simply put, the man can do it all. Happ opened the season with just the second triple double in school history. On November 17th against Houston Baptist, he became Wisconsin’s all-time leading rebounder, and is already in the top 10 in scoring.
If Wisconsin is truly going to be a threat this season, they’ll need Happ to continue playing like this. Against Xavier, Happ poured in 30 points to help the Badgers pull away in the second half to seal the win. Happ is a very unique player because he is the opposite of the modern-day big man. He doesn’t shoot from the perimeter at all, but he is so dynamic inside. His rare combination of size, footwork, and ball handling skills prompted comparisons to legendary NBA players like Kevin McHale. Happ may not be the shooter McHale was, but assistant coach Howard Moore still agrees. Moore said, “As far as the footwork and the knack of understanding angles and ways to get to the rim, without having … to just leap over everyone and finish, I think is pretty remarkable to see how comparable they are.”
Happ is one of the best players in the country and is one of the best players to ever come through Wisconsin. His senior season is his opportunity to cement his legacy, put the team on his back, and take Wisconsin to the promise land. With a healthy roster, an extra year of experience under most player’s belt, and one of the best players in the nation, the sky is the limit for this year’s Badgers team.