Experienced, gritty Badgers off to hot start head to Iowa for first conference test

Sophomore guard D'Mitrik Trice has helped lead the Badgers to their 6-1 start, and they'll face their first Big Ten game against the No. 14 Iowa Hawkeyes Friday. 

Image By: Katie Scheidt and Katie Scheidt

Flip through the Badgers roster, and you may scratch your head as to why the team has started this season 6-1.

It’s virtually the same group that stumbled to a 15-18 overall record last season and failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 19 years. And while guards Kobe King and D’Mitrik Trice missed much of the season through injury, they still played in the Badgers’ first 10 contests, where the team failed to dispatch any of the five Power 5 teams in front of them.

So what’s different now?

“We’re a way more experienced team than we were last year,” Trice said after the 79-75 victory against NC State Tuesday night. “You can see just the composure on these guys, never too high, never too low.”

Trice’s observations should be evident to anyone who watched the contest. Wisconsin, did not play its best game, plagued by turnovers in the game’s early stages and the Wolfpack’s speed throughout the whole night.

At one point, the No. 22 Badgers trailed by as much as 12 early in the second half, as NC State went on an extended 12-0 run to quiet the Kohl Center faithful.

With over 19 minutes remaining in the game, head coach Greg Gard had largely the same options as last season at his disposal to erase the deficit. But then maybe there’s something different about this group. Tuesday night suggested that to be the case.

“I think this group has embraced that [being gritty]… You can be in situations a lot of times where things don’t go as you planned, and as you want,” Gard said. “You’re not gonna’ make every shot, [there’s] gonna’ be some nights where you’re gonna struggle. But to have the fortitude to keep fighting back and to keep rallying is a good trait to have.”

Last season, it took the team until January 19 to earn its third win against a Power-5 team (including conference games). This year, that feat has already been cemented nearly a month before Christmas.

Wins against Stanford, Oklahoma and NC State (not to mention a hard-fought loss against No. 4 Virginia) have showed this team to be not only resilient but versatile as well.

“I think they’ve shown they can win in different ways,” Gard said. “We win in a game in the Bahamas against Stanford where we don’t shoot the three well or don’t get many threes. We shoot well against Oklahoma, we’re in a rock fight against Virginia, we battled back in that game.”

Part of the reason for the team’s greater balance is the return of King and Trice, the latter of which is stretching the floor as he’s averaging 3.4 three-pointers a game. But the Badgers weren’t just outmatched last year; they were inexperienced.

King, still a freshman due to a medical hardship waiver, has returned from injury more comfortable in the college game. Sophomores Aleem Ford and Nate Reuvers also look like they’ve benefitted from a tough first year in college basketball.

That extra bit of savvy seems to be why the Badgers are 6-1 right now, instead of the 4-3 record they stumbled to in 2017.

[It’s] a lot better than last season, that’s for sure,” senior forward Ethan Happ said. “It took us a long time to get to six wins last season, and I think that’s attributed to experience that we’ve gotten.”

Wisconsin will hope to channel that experience into Friday’s trip to Iowa City, where they’ll face a No. 14 Iowa Hawkeyes team (6-0 overall) that has three Power-5 wins of their own already (No. 18 Oregon, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh)

Iowa will provide a far different challenge than the one the Wolfpack brought to Madison Tuesday night. The Hawkeyes’ top two scorers, forwards Tyler Cook and Luke Garza, are listed at 6’9’ and 6’11’ respectively. That inside presence, combined with the fact that Iowa has allowed just 30.8 percent shooting on opponent three-point attempts, means that the Badgers may have to ditch the small approach they used Tuesday night.

Reuvers, who played just 11 minutes against NC State, might see an uptick in minutes to counteract the Hawkeyes’ size.

Iowa City will be host to the first conference game of the season, but it’s yet another challenge that will force the Badgers to adapt.

“We’ve been able to find different ways [to win],” Gard said, “and that’s usually the sign of a good team.” 

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