Wednesday night’s contest at the Kohl Center between the No. 13 Wisconsin Badgers (2-1) and the Rhode Island Rams (3-2) was certainly unexpected, to say the least. After Friday’s heartbreaking loss to Marquette, the Badgers faced plenty of uncertainty regarding not only their level of play, but also who they would play next.
The Louisville Cardinals were scheduled to come to Madison on Wednesday, but increasing COVID-19 cases within their program cancelled that trip. Fortunately for the Badgers, head coach Greg Gard and director of basketball operations Mark VandeWettering managed to get ahead of the cancellation and worked on a number of solutions to make sure the Badgers did not have to wait until Dec. 16 for their next game.
According to Gard, the Badgers tried to schedule a game with the Tennessee Volunteers, but the teams were unable to work out the details. A Tuesday game in Indianapolis against the Connecticut Huskies was also on the table before UConn’s program was put on pause due to COVID-19 cases. Luckily, head coach David Cox and the Rhode Island Rams were able to work out a trip to Madison for a game against the Badgers.
Undoubtedly the biggest threat to Wisconsin in this matchup is the Rams’ bona-fide star point guard: senior Damon “Fatts” Russell. Russell has had his nickname for his entire life; his mother started calling him Fatts as a baby because he was, well, a chubby baby. The 5’11” point guard has been a star his whole career. He set records at Imhotep Charter School for points, assists and steals. With the Rams, he has started since his sophomore year, coming off the bench for all 34 games his freshman year as well. Russell also boasts a preseason Naismith Award watch list spot and a spot on the Bob Cousy Award watch list, given to the nation’s best point guard.
Russell’s 17.8 points per game lead his team, but he has been relatively inefficient so far this year. So far, the Philadelphia native is shooting under 37% from the field and 20% from three-point range. But Russell is far from the only threat that the Badgers need to worry about.
The Rams boast an exceptional amount of veteran transfer talent. Redshirt junior forward Antwan Walker transferred from Georgetown after his freshman season and is now averaging 11 points and seven rebounds per game. Walker’s undersized but aggressive paint presence may give Wisconsin’s bigs a flashback of Marquette’s Theo John, who gave senior center Micah Potter trouble all game. Redshirt sophomore guard Jalen Carey transferred to Rhode Island from Syracuse, and he’s seen some mild success in Providence. The Harlem, N.Y. native is averaging just under 10 points per game and is shooting 55% from the field.
Perhaps one of the Rams’ most interesting players is senior guard Jeremy Sheppard. Sheppard spent his freshman year at Eastern Carolina where he saw a decent amount of success. But, Sheppard transferred to the College of Central Florida (not to be confused with the University of Central Florida) for his sophomore year, where he absolutely lit up the court against inferior opponents. After sitting his junior year at Rhode Island due to NCAA transfer rules, Sheppard has shown his scoring prowess, averaging 11 points per game and shooting 38.5% from three-point range.
Rhode Island has played just one ranked opponent so far this year, the Arizona State Sun Devils, to whom they lost in their season opener. Wisconsin will mark the Rams’ last chance at a victory over a ranked team, barring new schedule changes due to COVID.
The Badgers, of course, are coming off of a two-point loss to the Marquette Golden Eagles last Friday. Had the Badgers not attempted to schedule a game this week, they would have had to wait 12 days until their next game against mid-major sleeper Northern Iowa, which certainly could have taken a significant toll on a Badgers team coming off of a heart-shattering loss. Gard credited scheduled games with keeping his players in high spirits – he told reporters his staff is “trying to keep a close eye” on players’ mental health this year. So the Badgers will look to get the taste of the Marquette game out of their mouths.
The Rams will take on the 13th-ranked Badgers Wednesday night at 3:30 p.m. CST at the Kohl Center. As is usual in 2020, no fans and limited journalists will be allowed at the game. It will be televised on Big Ten Network.