Prior to this season during redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ’s Wisconsin career, when UW was in a late shot clock situation, Happ and the Badgers frequently relied on an experienced player to generate a quality offense shot.
“There were definitely times when Bronson [Koenig] just saved us,” Happ said. “He came off a ball-screen and shot a three five feet behind the line and saved us.”
This season, however, Wisconsin (3-4) has learned what life is like without a guard that can consistently create instant offense. In its first three losses, each to ranked teams, UW was either tied or was trailing by two points with two minutes to play. It struggled to close each of those games though and its inexperienced backcourt can partially be blamed for its problems down the stretch.
“It all comes down to execution at the end of the games,” sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “We’ve failed a few times and it’s really hurt us.”
But Wisconsin’s young backcourt is learning to improve from its early season struggles. And as UW readies for its first conference game of the season against Ohio State (5-3) on Saturday at 4 p.m., its backcourt is looking to show how much it’s already grown.
“This year coach [Greg] Gard’s been big on the idea that we gotta mature quick,” redshirt sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl said. “So we’re gonna have to make that senior guard step as freshman. There’s no time to complain and say, ‘Oh they’re young.’”
Wisconsin’s four freshmen have accounted for almost 42 percent of its minutes in the last two games and it’s been since the late 1990s since the Badgers had two freshmen in their starting lineup. The result of such inexperience can sometimes lead to sub-optimal shot selection, according to Gard.
Gard adds that his young team has gotten into the habit of settling for jump shots. Other times they turn down a good shot, but don’t get another good one in a possession. According to KenPom.com, UW has the longest average offensive possessions in the Big Ten, but Pritzl has also seen Wisconsin rush up triples at various points this season.
“As a team we gotta understand a little more time and score mechanics and when that kind of shot has to happen,” Pritzl said.
Assistant coach Dean Oliver says that Wisconsin’s shot selections and decision-making down the stretch will improve as it gets more experience. He adds that its backcourt is going through some early “growing pains,” but is taking to coaching incredibly well.
Part of that pain is likely a result of players still getting used to each other. Trice and Pritzl were UW’s two starting guards on opening night, but after less than a month, freshman guard Brad Davison has taken over Pritzl’s spot.
The result has meant that Trice and Davison have played in more than 40 percent of UW’s lineups, according to KenPom. By comparison, Trice and Pritzl have played together in just under 15 percent of UW’s lineups.
Pritzl, though, has stayed ready and not worried about how many minutes he might play in a night. His selfless attitude is reflected in his rebounding numbers, as the 6’3’’ guard is second on the team in rebounds per game.
Over the years, Pritzl has learned that some games a player might shoot well from three. Other games they might struggle from deep and instead perform better around the rim. But that no matter one’s offensive prowess, there is no excuse for not rebounding and not defending.
Defense hasn’t been a problem for the Badgers, however, as it's surrendered 50 points or fewer in three of its first seven games and 49 in each of its last two.
“We’re defending well, we just gotta start hitting some shots,” Pritzl said.
Going forward, Happ is confident in his team’s ability to do just that. And as conference play begins, he doesn’t expect the lack of a proven shot-maker to be a problem.
He’s already seeing improvement.
“We could definitely use that this year,” Happ said. “But I think young guys are definitely growing into their roles.”
Tipoff for Wisconsin-Ohio State is 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon.