The Wisconsin men’s basketball team (2-3) headed to Kansas City, Mo., this week to compete in the Hall of Fame Classic at the Sprint Center.
The Badgers opened the two-game tournament against No. 22 Baylor, and despite a valiant comeback effort ultimately fell just short to the Bears, 70-65.
Seven-foot sophomore forward Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. torched the Badgers in the first half, hitting shots with ease from everywhere on the court. The Melbourne, Australia, native closed the opening period with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field and 2-of-2 from three-point range.
The second half was more of the same from Baylor, as the Bears stretched their lead from 12 at the intermission to 19, 53-34, with 11:14 left in the game.
But UW wasn’t finished fighting. Led by redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ, freshman guard Brad Davison and junior forward Khalil Iverson, the Badgers stormed back to cut the lead to with 2:15 to go. The trio scored all 21 points over the course of a 21-4 lead that trimmed the deficit to 57-55.
For the second time in as many games, a young Wisconsin team found itself a possession out of the lead against a formidable ranked opponent. But, as before, the Badgers made repeated errors down the stretch, allowing Manu Lecomte, an 83.9 percent career free-throw shooter, to get to the foul line five times where he sank 10-of-11 shots in the final 1:59 to seal the victory.
After the loss, UW lined up again the following night to take on No. 23 UCLA (4-1) in the consolation game. The flow of the second matchup was a role reversal of the Baylor game, as the Badgers jumped out to a 12-point lead late in the first half but allowed the Bruins to climb back into it. Aaron Holiday’s layup over Happ with 0.9 seconds to go sealed a 72-70 UCLA victory.
But while the result was similarly painful for UW, the opening tipoff was anything but. For the first time in nearly 20 years, two freshmen stepped onto the court to start the game. Davison and redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford took the places of redshirt junior guard Brevin Pritzl and redshirt sophomore forward Andy Van Vliet.
While Ford remained mostly quiet for the duration of his 19 minutes, Davison was electrifying, finishing with 14 points on 4-of-11 shooting and two steals in 35 minutes of action.
Davison effectively guaranteed his presence in the starting lineup for the near future and likely his career at UW, while the Van Vliet-Pritzll-Ford situation lacks any sense of clarity. Davison, the Badgers’ freshman phenom, has been a force on the court this season, and Tuesday night was no different. He drew three offensive fouls and a Flagrant I and took numerous fearless shots.
The Maple Grove, Minn., product brings an energy and aggressiveness on both ends of the court that UW hasn’t seen in quite a while. While he has the defensive awareness of a Zak Showalter or Josh Gasser, he looks more willing to create and take shots for himself in a way that neither of those two ever did.
Davison has taken 17 shots in the last two games despite suffering a shoulder injury in the second half against the Bears, and has shown an ability to make tough shots that could soon rival Bronson Koenig.
Of course, Davison’s heroics haven’t been enough to save the Badgers from three consecutive close losses, each of which was within reach in the closing minutes. UW has looked competitive in its three losses and has made too many mental errors that will have to be corrected to topple the contenders in the Big Ten.
The Badgers were dusted by Trevon Bluiett in the last two minutes and change against Xavier, repeatedly fouled Baylor’s Lecomte intentionally, and turned the ball over on four of its final 10 possessions against UCLA. Those mistakes are indicative of a fresh-faced team that still has plenty of room to grow.
But that growth is exactly why head coach Greg Gard scheduled such a brutal non-conference slate for his young team. He wanted to test his freshmen and sophomores and allow them to get a feel for where their deficiencies lie. Come January, though, he thinks they’ll be ready.
The challenges will continue early next week, as the Badgers head to Charlottesville Monday to take on Virginia (4-0) after a brief stop back in Madison to take on Milwaukee (3-1) Friday. Tipoff against the Panthers is set for 8 p.m.