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Thursday, June 13, 2024
Senior forward Ethan Happ scored his 2000th career point with six minutes left Tuesday night, but the Badgers couldn't find any other offense down the stretch in a loss.

Senior forward Ethan Happ scored his 2000th career point with six minutes left Tuesday night, but the Badgers couldn't find any other offense down the stretch in a loss.

Despite recent struggles, future looks bright for UW behind young, driven core

For decades, the Wisconsin men’s basketball program was forgettable.

Over the course of 40 seasons from 1954 to 1995, the Badgers notched just eight winning seasons and won 42.8 percent of their games. That half-century of poor performance featured a single appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 1994, when UW won one game and promptly surrendered 109 points in a Second Round loss to Missouri.

But then Dick Bennett was hired away from UW-Green Bay and quickly found some success at the state’s flagship university. He coached the Badgers to winning records in four of his five full seasons, leading them to three NCAA Tournaments culminating in a bizarre sprint to the Final Four in 2000. Bennett’s immediate success brought an air of confidence back to a program that had desperately lacked it since World War II.

That confidence was smacked squarely in the mouth when Bennett retired three games into his sixth season, leaving assistant Brad Soderberg to guide UW to a First Round tournament upset at the hands of Georgia State.

So the search was on for someone to maintain the hope that Bennett had brought so abruptly to Madison. That search led straight to the doorstep of UW-Platteville legend Bo Ryan.

Ryan came to the bench at the Kohl Center and led the Badgers to a share of the Big Ten title in his first year. His second season saw the best performance in program history up to that point (per the Daily Cardinal rating system), a record Ryan would break five more times before his retirement in 2015.

After 40 years of mediocrity, UW has been among the nations top programs for going on two decades. The Badgers have made the tournament in every season since 1999, the sixth-longest streak in the history of college basketball. So it seemed that the hiring of Bo Ryan marked an era of invincibility, one that would make Big Ten title contention the norm and Sweet 16 appearances second nature.

But basketball, like all sports, is cyclical. And now the cycle has come around.

After the graduation of UW’s winningest senior class ever, the mantle was handed to All American forward Ethan Happ and a handful of underclassmen. Expectations were tempered, but the promising development of rising sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice, junior forward Khalil Iverson and the program’s best recruiting class in at least five years provided optimism.

But on the morning of Dec. 9, with the Badgers already tumbling through non-conference play with a 4-6 record, that optimism was cut down at the waist.

The team announced that Trice — playing a team-high 31.5 minutes per game — and freshman guard Kobe King — who had been pegged before the season as UW’s best shot at an immediate contributing freshman — would each sit out indefinitely with a foot injury and a knee injury, respectively. King’s season is done, and Trice has missed 10 games, though his return is imminent.

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Winter break saw the Badgers crawl through the easiest part of their conference slate. They sit now at 3-4, tying the team’s worst seven-game start to Big Ten play in 25 years.

At this point, barring a miracle Big Ten Tournament title — which would almost certainly necessitate wins over at least two teams currently ranked in the KenPom top 15 — an NCAA Tournament berth is out of the question. The Badgers are one of just three Big Ten teams at or below .500 overall, and it has become overwhelmingly clear that this season is for what the Badgers have considered a four-letter word for 20 years: rebuilding.

That being said, let’s make something clear: Wisconsin is not headed into a chasm of mediocrity that will see nine American presidents and five Constitutional amendments. Head coach Greg Gard is among the most capable in the country and the Badgers’ core remains promising.

Despite the absence of Trice and King, a 25-point beatdown of Illinois Friday night highlighted much of what the UW coaching staff is so optimistic about.

Breakout freshman guard Brad Davison led the team in scoring with 18 points on a freakishly efficient .865 true shooting percentage. Among Power 5 freshman guards with similar usage rates, Davison ranks No. 4 in effective field goal percentage and steals per game. He leads all Big Ten freshmen in scoring at 12.1 points per game and has drawn a team-high 19 charges through 20 games.

Freshman forward Nate Reuvers, who was redshirting until the underwhelming play of Andy Van Vliet forced him into action, led the team with five blocks against Illinois, bringing his team-leading total to 21 for the season and putting him at No. 13 among Power 5 freshmen with 1.4 blocks per game.

The speed of Reuvers’ development has astounded Gard and Co. After nearly fouling out in just 14 minutes in his first appearance and missing his first 10 shots over the course of two games, the raw freshman has shot 46.7 percent from the floor in his last eight games, including 38.5 percent from 3-point range and has blocked nearly two shots a game.

Reuvers’s game still has a long way to go, but his performance in the preseason made him feel like an afterthought in the recruiting class behind the inspiring play of Davison and King.

Though redshirt sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl has been on campus for three years, he was inserted into the starting lineup this season and saw his playing time nearly quadruple with Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter graduated. He was touted out of high school as a spectacular sharpshooter, but shot just 27.3 percent from deep in his first 35 games with the Badgers.

Since then, though, he’s shown signs of becoming the shooter that was promised, connecting on 37.8 percent of his triples and recorded double-digit points in seven of those nine games.

Come fall of 2018, D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King will be healthy. Ethan Happ will still be among the best all-around players in the country. Brad Davison and Nate Reuvers’ games will be another year matured, and perhaps Brevin Pritzl will approach 40 percent from beyond the arc.

There is reason for optimism in Madison, where a Badger team that has shown flashes of ability has been riddled with injuries and inexperience but also features its youngest core in recent memory.

The future of Wisconsin basketball is on its way. It looks hopeful. And while it may be taking its time getting here, one thing is certain: It’s coming.

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