By: Max Kappel
Despite retaining nine of their top ten minute earners from last year, this year’s Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team looks and feels different.
Following a loss to North Texas in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) semifinals in late March, the team needed to recuperate after a long season.
“We changed how we approached the spring,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said in his press conference on October 4. “We went all weight room. Nothing instructional on the court. I think [it] was a big step.”
Leading the weight room regimen since April of 2021 is Jim Snider. Snider trains NHL and Olympic athletes in addition to training the men’s basketball and men’s tennis teams at UW. His knowledge and personality have rubbed off on many players.
“The intensity and practices have been ramped up,” guards Jack Janicki and Isaac Gard said. “Our lifting coach [Snider] is a fiery, high intensity guy.”
Intensity is far from the only thing players have remarked about Snider.
“He’s got things down to a science. He’s got attention to detail and personalized things for guys,” Chris Hodges said.
Snider took great care in assuring players were performing the right exercises for them with optimal form.
The work the team put in the weight room has paid off in different ways. Returning guard Connor Essegian says he is up 10 pounds from last year, currently sitting around 195. He says he plans to get to 200 before the season starts in hopes it will help him be more durable.
Freshman Gus Yalden has used the weight room differently. Yalden reportedly lost 35 pounds from when he was first recruited by Gard to when he arrived on campus. Gard claims that number is now up to 60 pounds. While Essegian added weight for durability, Yalden figures to be more maneuverable and nimble.
With such a focus on physicality and conditioning, it begs the question. What will the team’s pace of play look like? Longer, more intense practices. Physical transformations. Possibly a change of some sort in how the team operates?
Gard was adamant that fans would not suddenly see a high-energy group this season.
“You always want to play faster and get easy baskets,” he said. “Yes, if we can get something easy in transition. We’ve got an experienced point guard and bigs that can run the floor.”
To Gard, pace of play means nothing without efficiency.
“You look back at our 2015 team, which averaged 1.29 points per possession, it’s the slowest team we’ve ever had here,” he explained.
Though this year’s team may not be as efficient as the one that barely lost to Duke in the NCAA championship, Gard is focusing on improving their efficiency before stressing a faster pace.
“We were 1.06 last year, that’s gotta be 1.1 something this year.”
The depth was another key talking point. Throughout the afternoon, players echoed the same thing: this team is deep. Freshman Nolan Winter identified it as a strength of the team.
“We’re really deep. We’ve got a lot of players that can play and get minutes,” he said.
Gard had similar things to say.
Almost immediately after beginning his opening statements at his local media day press conference, Gard referenced how fortunate he and his staff are to have so many returning players.
“Retention is something our staff talked about more than anything through the offseason,” he said. “Credit to the players for coming back, committing to being a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Chucky Hepburn (12.2 PPG) and Steven Crowl (12.1 PPG), last year’s top two scorers, figure to start again this year. Essegian and Max Klesmit, who shot 35.9% and 38.3% from three last season on high volume, are also candidates to start. Do-it-all forward Tyler Wahl, who is now healthy after dealing with a back issue last season, rounds out the starting five. He was fourth on the team in points (11.3), second in rebounds (6.3), tied for second in assists and steals (2.5 and 1.2), and second in blocks (0.4). Behind them is a host of capable rotation players.
Juniors Carter Gilmore and Kamari McGee have the most experience outside of those five potential starters. They were 7th and 8th in total minutes played for the team last year. Just behind them were guard Isaac Lindsey and forward Markus Ilver, who are both returning.
Many familiar faces will compete for minutes, but so will new ones.
Yalden, Janicki, Winter, and John Blackwell join the Badgers as freshmen. A new face along with them is sophomore transfer guard AJ Storr. Storr played in 33 games, making 17 starts, for the St. John’s Red Storm last year, averaging 8.8 points, 1.9 rebounds, and 0.8 assists in 21.1 minutes per game with the team. Crowl described him as “one of the most athletic people I’ve ever seen.”
Of the four freshmen, Yalden is the highest ranked recruit. A four-star from La Lumiere high school in La Porte, Ind., he combines prodigious power and slick footwork in a 6’9 frame.
Janicki, from White Bear Lake, Minn., is a smooth-shooting lefty guard. He walked on at UW despite having offers from Wake Forest, Santa Clara, and Loyola-Chicago among others.
Winter showed his penchant for cleaning the glass and efficient scoring at the team’s Red-White scrimmage on October 15th. He scored 13 points and collected 12 rebounds. He’s a 3-Star recruit out of Lakeville North High School in Minnesota.
Blackwell is another 3-star recruit from Brother Rice in Chicago. He’s “a driver first, shooter second,” according to Rick Palmer, his high school coach, but saw his perimeter shooting blossom throughout his time there.
“He’s got the size and tools to be an elite defender as well.”
All of these players have made their presence felt.
“Our younger guys have really stepped in and challenged the older guys,” Gard said. “It’s going to make decisions hard on myself and our staff with who plays, and who gets how many minutes.”
Wahl, now entering his fifth year with UW, recognizes the same thing as Gard. He appreciates the challenge, believing it will only help the team.
“That’s the best thing. We have guys who push each other,” Wahl said. “If you’re slacking, someone’s going to give you your lunch.”
Wahl’s experience is not only important on game days, but during practice as well. He’s grown as a leader not only since his freshman year but since high school at Lakeville North; something fellow Lakeville North alum Winter has noticed.
“I was a little quieter in high school,” Wahl said. “I’ve been a better communicator. Speaking up when my voice needs to be heard. If something’s going on in practice that shouldn’t be happening, just speaking up and saying ‘that’s not how we do things.”
Wahl understands Gard’s system. He also understands what it’s like to be new to that system. Before he started all 31 games for UW as a freshman and was a finalist for the 2023 Julius Erving award, awarded to the nation’s best small forward, as a senior, he was a stranger embarking on the next part of his journey.
He does whatever he can to help his teammates.
“Answering questions from the younger guys,” he said, when asked how he’s helped lead the team. “If they have questions about how we do things or how offensive sets are supposed to be run, I can help them.”
Those younger guys have responded well to the competition, and it helps having veterans like Wahl along with them. Winter described the transition from high school to college as seamless.
“Ever since the summer, getting to know the team. Transitions’ been smooth,” he said. “Getting to know their playstyles, how to play with them. Very welcoming. We’re building lifelong friendships.”
The Badgers will look to roll into the season with their new strength and depth starting November 6 against Arkansas State. Things get more difficult later that week against the preseason-No. 9 team Tennessee on November 10. After three games against Providence, Robert Morris, and Virginia, UW faces three other highly ranked teams.
They host No. 5 Marquette at the Kohl Center on December 2nd before traveling to play No. 4 Michigan State and No. 12 Arizona on the 5th and the 9th.
Conference play opens against Iowa on January 2.