After more than a quarter of a season’s worth of preseason exhibition games, the regular season has finally arrived for the Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
A five-game tour of Australia and three more scrimmages have a young Badgers squad unusually prepared for its opening-night matchup with South Carolina State.
“Since we had so many exhibitions, it doesn't really feel that different to me,” freshman guard Kobe King said. “I'm excited that it's gonna count, but it doesn't feel that different.”
For a team that will prominently feature at least two freshmen in King and fellow guard Brad Davison, the lengthy preseason has been critical in getting accustomed to the pace of college basketball.
During UW’s intercontinental trip, the pair played significant minutes and gained invaluable experience alongside their new teammates. King led the team in scoring with 18 points on a hyper-efficient 6-of-8 from the field against the Hawthorn Magic, while Davison led the Badgers with 23 points, including 7-of-7 from the free-throw line, in the team’s final exhibition.
“It just gives you something you can learn from and something you can go off of. It gives you confidence in a way, too,” King said. “For us, playing has been a huge confidence booster, specifically the freshmen, just knowing that we can play at this level.”
Though King and Davison are the freshest faces set to play big minutes for UW, several third-year veterans will be making the leap to the starting rotation. Redshirt sophomores Brevin Pritzl and Andy Van Vliet will be on the court at tipoff against South Carolina State season despite having played just 259 combined minutes in their careers. For comparison, redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ nearly quadrupled that number in his freshman season.
For Van Vliet, a 7-foot forward from Antwerp, Belgium, the transition to a starting role is a welcome change of pace after two profoundly disappointing seasons in Madison.
“Coming in the first year it was kind of a bummer that I didn’t play. I took a year to improve and then the next year after that I didn’t really capitalize on that,” Van Vliet said. “Making that turnaround this summer ... It’s been along time coming. I haven’t really played a competitive game in two years. I’m obviously still trying to get comfortable out there and playing for such a big crowd is new for me, but I’m very excited.”
The rest of the starting five will be rounded out by junior forward Khalil Iverson, who has arguably improved more than any other player on the Badgers’ roster, sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice and Happ, UW’s rock in the paint.
Happ has been a force for a full two seasons with the Badgers, and if he can just maintain his level of play, he will be a lock for the All-Big Ten First Team. What remains to be seen, though, is whether or not the 3-point shooting that he has flashed in the preseason and in practice can be a sustainable facet of his offensive game. Even a 3-pointer or two at a 30-percent clip would immediately skyrocket him into the Wooden Award frontrunner conversation.
Trice will step into the starting point guard spot in place of Bronson Koenig after seeing significant playing time and starting two games in his freshman season. He ranked in the top 10 in the conference in 3-point percentage last year, but saw his conversion rate trail off as teams began to key in on him as a threat from distance.
Trice knows that his role is going to expand dramatically this year and firmly believes that he’s capable of handling that load. But despite the attention he’s drawing in the face of a new starting position, it’s the rest of the team that Trice thinks will leave a big mark.
“We have a lot of new faces that haven’t seen the court as much or not at all,” Trice said. “I think they're gonna shock a lot of people.”