With just over 11 minutes left to play in the first half, sophomore forward Kobe King brought the 17,106 fans in attendance at the Kohl Center to their feet with an emphatic one-handed dunk over Eastern Illinois forward Jordan Skipper-Brown.
That sight – King beating his man off the dribble and soaring to the rim – is something the Badgers desperately need to see more of.
King finished with 18 points on 5-12 shooting along with six rebounds and three steals in Wisconsin’s (1-1) 65-52 win over Eastern Illinois (0-2) in its home opener. It was a stark difference from his tentative, six-point outing in UW’s 65-63 overtime loss to St. Mary’s, where he attempted just two shots from the field.
“He learned,” head coach Greg Gard said of King. “Our whole theme was, today before the game, get better – what have we learned in the last 72 hours? How much better can we be? It’s going to be different, you’re going to be playing a little bit differently, but we gotta become smarter, we gotta become better and I thought he took a good step in the right direction, because he has the chance to be a really good player. But he’s young. The best way for him to grow is to get experience. Some of that experience is not always going to be positive. But I thought he took a step from Tuesday night.”
The Badgers seemed to look to King every time they needed a bucket. With junior guard D’Mitrik Trice sidelined for most of the first half after receiving an elbow to the face, UW’s offense largely revolved around King as the focal point of its offense, who in turn drove to the rim aggressively all night. King notched 18 minutes in the first half and 37 minutes for the game, both leading the team.
Outside of junior forward Nate Reuvers, who followed up his team-high 22-point output against St. Mary’s with 14 points, 14 rebounds and nine blocks against Eastern Illinois, the Badgers are void of proven, go-to scorers. Put simply, Wisconsin needs King to be that guy.
A highly touted local recruit – King, a La Crosse native, was a four-star coming out of high school, claiming Wisconsin’s Mr. Basketball, Gatorade Player of the Year and a unanimous selection Associated Press Player of the Year. A season-ending knee injury robbed King of most of his freshman year, and he struggled to find a rhythm last year, scoring just 4.2 points in 19 minutes per game.
Bringing in just one recruit this year in forward Tyler Wahl, and their lone transfer in forward Micah Potter ineligible for the first 10 games, the Badgers are relying on several role players from last season to make big jumps in their production this year. As such, King’s development this season is fundamental to UW’s success.
After his struggles against St. Mary’s, former Badger and current assistant coach Alando Tucker, who averaged 16.5 points per game in his four years in Madison, offered words of encouragement to King. It appears that guidance has already proved fruitful.
“He told me after that last game that it took him a lot of games like that, kind of struggling, to get to where he was,” King said. “That really hit home, and the coaches were definitely feeding me confidence, saying ‘it’s a long season, stay aggressive, but get better and learn from it.’ I thought it was another step forward tonight.”
That’s when junior guard Brad Davison chimed in, claiming “We told him that, also.”
King’s teammates recognize just how important he is to their offense – he is perhaps UW’s most explosive player and most capable of creating his own shot. Few Badgers can match King’s ability to get to the rim, which appears to be all the more important with regards to Wisconsin's shooting woes to open the season – they are 8-37, or 22 percent, from behind the arc thus far. When the Badgers go through prolonged scoring droughts, as they did last year and tonight, they will need King to replicate the aggressiveness he showed all night.
“Hopefully I have a few more of those throughout the year,” King said of his dunk.
The same can be said for the rest of his performance.