It’s been 231 days since the No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers men's basketball team has played a game, but that’s about to change Wednesday when the team faces off against Eastern Illinois.
A lot has happened since the Badgers win against Indiana on March 7, as the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world just days later, and shut down the Badgers before they could finish the 2019-20 season.
It was a roller coaster of a year for the Badgers, who saw an impact player transfer from the team as it was faltering in January, but ultimately won a share of the Big Ten Championship before tournament play could begin.
”It's been well documented that we faced a lot of highs and lows as a team,” senior Guard Brad Davison said in October. “Ultimately by trusting the process we liked where we were before the season was cut short.”
Wisconsin returns all but one key player from last year's squad for the 2020-21 season, only losing sharpshooting Guard Brevin Pritzl who graduated and is now playing professionally in Serbia.
The Badgers have seven seniors on the roster: Brad Davison, D’Mitrik Trice, Aleem Ford, Nate Reuvers, Micah Potter, Walt McGrory and Trevor Anderson — also returning talented Sophomore Tyler Wahl. Those eight players account for nearly 77 percent of minutes played last season, and 79 percent of the scoring.
The Badgers are set to roll out a lineup that features Davison, Trice, Ford, Reuvers and Potter on opening night, although Head Coach Greg Gard has said it may not look the same all season.
“I think we kind of even learned that even more as we went through last year, what maybe on paper looked like maybe was going to be our best lineup really wasn’t our best lineup,” Gard said in early November.
During the 2019-20 campaign Reuvers and Potter actually weren’t very efficient when they shared the court together, only averaging about a net gain of 0.01 points-per-possession.
Both big men play solid inside and have sweet three point shots, but spacing was a nagging issue when they played together. That may be because Reuvers and Potter didn’t share the floor until halfway through the season, and the two have said they worked together this summer to help with their chemistry.
“I feel comfortable being on the court at the same time as him,” Reuvers said. “I think we could play great together [in a] high-low, if they’re going to double me or double him in the post, it’s great to know [the other] can step out there and shoot the ball, too.”
However, Wahl may still get the nod in the starting lineup over either big man on some nights depending on the matchup.
Wahl’s freshman campaign, like the team, had its highs and lows, but he showed huge potential throughout the year. Over the summer Wahl has packed on 15 more pounds of muscle to his frame and worked on improving his shooting touch.
“His strength has drastically improved from last year, his handle is really good and with his defensive versatility he can practically guard 1-5,” Potter said in October. “His shot has also looked really improved in shooting drills, you can tell he put in a lot of work over the summer.”
With Wahl’s improvements and the rest of the team fully healthy and ready to go Gard has a lot of lineup options. On nights where Gard wants to play small he can roll out a lineup of Trice, Davison, Anderson, Ford and Wahl, or he could roll out a mega lineup of Davison, Ford, Wahl, Potter and Reuvers, or go anywhere in between.
Wisconsin also has a full Freshman class with six new players added to the mix, including highly ranked prospects Ben Carlson and Johnny Davis. While none are expected to have a huge impact on the Badgers season, players and coaches have had high praise for the group.
”We’ve got a lot of different weapons, I really like the freshman,” Davison said. “They have been really confident and aggressive, they do all the little things that go a long way to help a team be successful.”
With a glaring experience gap on the team between the seniors and freshmen, senior players have taken a leadership role to help mentor the freshmen during practice as they work through growing pains in their first collegiate season.
“The maturity of this group during the pandemic has definitely helped, not getting too high or too low based on what has transpired around us. Credit the young guys for their work here, but also credit our older guys,” coach Gard said Monday. “There’s not a day that goes by where I don't see an older guy grab a young guy to pull them aside to help with our instruction.”
While Gard feels all the work his players put in over the summer has significantly helped the team, he said it was past time for an actual game.
“It's been a long unusual offseason, so we’re looking forward to Wednesday night,” Gard said. “Guys are excited to get back on the court and finally play a game — it's been a long time coming.”