The campaign to defend the 2021-22 regular season Big Ten championship kicked off Monday night, as the Badgers comfortably took down the Coyotes of South Dakota, 85-59.
Head Coach Greg Gard's started many of his returning players, including sophomore Chucky Hepburn and senior Tyler Wahl, who were both members of the 2022 preseason All-Big Ten team. 7-foot junior Steven Crowl also started alongside junior Jordan Davis and Wofford College transfer student Max Klesmit.
Gard's outfit was particularly notable. He paid homage to former Head Coach Bo Ryan, Gard's predecessor, in an all-red suit, which Ryan was known for wearing as a good-luck charm.
The Badgers’ own “big three'' led the team to a win. Wahl led the way with 19 points (17 in the second half) and 10 rebounds, securing his first ever career game with over 15 points and 10 rebounds. Hepburn and Crowl also contributed with 14 and 12 points respectively.
However, there is much more to be said about the Badgers’ offense as a whole. Every player contributed to the success of the team, and the new guys shined especially bright. Klesmit notched 11 points in his 31 minutes on the floor — the most time any of the Badgers played Monday night. Freshman guard Connor Essegian added to the encouraging offensive display with two three pointers and an electric assist. Kamari McGee, a sophomore transfer from Green Bay, also saw solid playing time and contributed two assists in his first game in the cardinal red and white.
The beginning minutes of the home opener provided unfortunate flashbacks to last year’s Badgers, who finished last in the Big Ten in three point shooting percentages. Even though the first points of the season came from a Steven Crowl three, the following minutes echoed last year’s shooting woes.
The offense was stagnant as the players shook off their Kohl Center rust, getting accustomed to playing in their new home for the first time. Even as shots started to fall, it was clear that this was the first game of the season, and the departures from last season were still taking a toll.
Of course, losing the Big Ten Player of the Year and the tenth overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft Johnny Davis is not an easy offensive gap to fill. Former players Chris Vogt and Brad Davison were two massive losses as well. Both brought unfaltering leadership and experience to the team.
With all losses aside, though, the Badgers found their form as the first half progressed. The rotation of big men between Gilmore, Ilver and Crowl allowed the Badgers to play two-way basketball, as the team finished with four blocks and considerable hustle from the big men — especially on loose ball plays.
Hepburn’s trailing three pointer at the buzzer capped off a team nine-for-15 three-point shooting half — surpassing their percentage from last season.
In the second half, a fire was seemingly lit underneath Tyler Wahl. He opened the half with back-to-back free throws, followed by a steal and an emphatic slam. After scoring just two points in the first half, Wahl worked the Badgers’ two-way game into a groove with his full court abilities, including steals and a double-team layup that spiked the Badgers’ second half momentum.
The rest of the team followed suit, as Hepburn launched a full court pass for a Jordan Davis and-one play that had shades of the Mertz-to-Dike connection. Essegian’s passing and shooting abilities emerged in the second half, too, as he assisted Wahl for a slam and drilled two three pointers.
Yet again, the offense slowed down midway through the half, but Wahl continued to take matters into his own hands — providing sparks of scoring. The bench players rotated in, too, and three pointers from Isaac Lindsey and Markus Ilver, combined with the defensive plays of Chris Hodges, sent the Badgers into a 1-0 record. Even freshman Isaac Gard, son of Greg Gard, got his first minute as Badger.
A total of 12 three pointers from multiple players ties the season high from last year, so there is hope that the shooting can be a brighter spot on offense compared to last year. This is largely attested to the new Badgers. Klesmit and Essegian both demonstrated their capabilities of putting points on the board from outside the arc. Confidence will be key as they continue to figure out their roles.
Just like last season, the Badgers are projected to finish right in the middle of the Big Ten pack. While this prediction was tremendously inaccurate last year, the “experts” have decided to count out the Badgers again. There is no doubt that any given Big Ten schedule is a gauntlet run, and it will be no different this year — even without a Big Ten team in the preseason AP Top 25 for the first time since 1977. The Badgers proved that they could handle some of the best Big Ten teams last year, and the expectations should be no different this season.
The leadership of Hepburn and Wahl, plus the undeniable rising stock of newcomers like Klesmit and Essegian, should be more than enough to propel the Badgers towards the top of one of the best conferences in college basketball.
The Badgers take on the Stanford Cardinal next, who pulled out an 88-78 win over the University of the Pacific Monday night. The cross-conference matchup takes place Friday, Nov. 11 at 6:30 p.m. It is one of two unique Badger games at the Milwaukee Brewers’ American Family Field as a part of the Brew City Battle experience. It will also be live on FS1.