Andy Van Vliet admitted to being a little bit nervous heading into Wisconsin’s (1-0) regular season opener against South Carolina State (0-1) Friday night. But the 7-foot Belgium forward quickly settled in during UW’s 85-50 win over the Bulldogs and helped boost a Badgers team chock full of unproven talent.
Van Vliet, who had played in only 14 career games before this season, set career-highs with eight rebounds and 18 points, as he scored as many points Friday as he had scored combined coming into Wisconsin’s season opener.
“Coming in the first year, it was kind of a bummer that I didn’t play,” Van Vliet said after Wisconsin’s practice Wednesday afternoon. “It took a year to improve and the next year after that I didn’t really capitalize on that. And then kind of making that turnaround this summer and having a good summer, I improved. I’m excited. It’s been a long time coming.”
Van Vliet took advantage of constant mismatches on the perimeter as the long-armed forward found himself frequently shooting over undersized South Carolina State defenders. SCSU head coach Murray Garvin said he told his team prior to its matchup with Wisconsin that Van Vliet was more comfortable playing on the perimeter then working down low, but Van Vliet’s high release proved to be too difficult to defend.
“It’s hard to compete against a seven-footer that can really shoot the ball from deep,” Garvin said.
Van Vliet shot 7-of-11 from the field and was 4-of-5 from three. But he was far from the only new Wisconsin starter that shinned in its victory.
Redshirt sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl set a new career-high in points, scoring 17 in 28 minutes of action. And sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice added 13 points and five assists in 33 minutes of play.
UW’s lone returning starter, redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ, recorded his 21st career double-double, and finished with a game-high 20 points and 11 rebounds in just under 30 minutes.
Despite a 35-point victory Friday night, Wisconsin struggled at points defensively. UW got off to a slow start in the second half and led by only 11 points with 11:54 to play in the game. But, after two 3-point misses by Trice, Happ got the Badgers’ third shot attempt of the possession to fall and after adding a free throw, extended Wisconsin’s lead back to 14.
The Bulldogs wouldn’t go away however, as with just over 8:30 to play, Wisconsin turned to Van Vliet to again stretch its 14-point lead.
Van Vliet hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions and blocked a Bulldog shot that led to a layup by Pritzl to put the Badgers up 22.
South Carolina State would never recover.
While the Belgium forward stretched the Bulldog defense on the offensive end, Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard admitted that Van Vliet still has plenty of room to grow.
“I look at Andy’s numbers and I know he had 18 and eight, but I don’t think he played very well,” Gard said.
Van Vliet said Wednesday that he remains more comfortable on offense than on defense and that he is still learning where he has to be on the defensive end of the floor. Trice added that Van Vliet can also improve as a rebounder, but that his growth from last season to this season is apparent.
“Now, you can see that he can stretch the floor and a lot of teams will key in on that, but he can also face up towards the basket in the paint,” Trice said. “He’s doing a great job rebounding. He can improve on that, but he’s definitely becoming an all-around skilled player.”
Van Vliet said Wednesday that with each rep he gets on the court he becomes increasingly comfortable.
Wisconsin has a quick turnaround this weekend as it hosts Yale at 5 p.m. Sunday afternoon. The Belgium forward will be making his second career start, and after his first performance in the starting lineup, he looks to continue to make his opportunities count.
“It felt good to be on the floor. And after two years of not really playing to finally be playing in the Kohl Center,” Van Vliet said after UW’s home-opener. “It’s a blessing.”