Bench rotation up in the air as Badgers approach Big Ten play

Sophomore Alex Illikainen is one of many Badger reserves to play sixth man this season.

Image By: Alayna Truttmann

The No. 17 Wisconsin Badgers (6-2) might have returned more than 99 percent of their scoring and minutes this season, but stability in their roster construction has not translated to stability in the team’s rotation.

While the Badgers’ bench has been incredibly productive early on this season, through eight games, five different Badgers have been the first reserve to enter a game, be it alone or alongside another teammate.

Junior guard Jordan Hill and sophomore forward Alex Illikainen were the first Badgers to enter UW’s season opener against Central Arkansas. Illikainen alone entered first in Wisconsin’s loss to Creighton and he entered alongside sophomore guard Khalil Iverson in UW’s victory over Georgetown.

Freshman guard D’Mitrik Trice and sophomore forward Charles Thomas IV were the first pair of reserves to see the floor in Wisconsin’s most recent games against Prairie View A&M and Syracuse.

At this point in the season, you’d be better playing whack-a-mole than guessing which Badger reserve was going to enter the game first.

“It’s all over the place,” Thomas said.

Yet the uncertainty of head coach Greg Gard’s rotation has not affected many of the Badger reserves.

“It really doesn’t change much from an individual standpoint,” Iverson said. “As soon as I get in, I try to get in and do my job, no matter what that is, no matter when that is.”

Iverson and Thomas recognize that no matter who enters first, each Badger reserve is trying to help UW succeed.

“He’s always putting new guys in there, but it doesn’t really mentally take a toll,” Thomas said. “I just see it as ‘I gotta do what I gotta do’ and that’s the same mindset for everybody else.”

In Wisconsin’s win over Syracuse, only one reserve, D’Mitrik Trice, played more than 10 minutes. Hill and Thomas played seven minutes a piece, while Illikainen played six and Iverson played just five minutes. Yet after the game, Gard credited the bench for playing a major role in the Badgers’ victory.

“Our ability to use the bench in other games previously has allowed some of the older guys to remain a little fresher at times,” Gard said. “The bench helped prior to tonight to set up tonight for them to play that well.”

The lineup whack-a-mole will likely subside as the season progresses and Gard settles on a bench rotation, but its volatility early on has given a number of players vital in-game experience, and a fun guessing game to play before tipoff.

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