Last season, UW men’s basketball forward Keaton Nankivil scored a career high 21 points in the Badgers’ second game against Purdue, showing a deft touch on the perimeter with five three-pointers.
Nankivil followed up with five points against Northwestern in Wisconsin’s next game.
In similar fashion, UW forward Jon Leuer poured in a season-high 19 points against SIU-Edwardsville in the beginning of the season but followed up with only five points against Iona in the Badgers’ next contest.
Guess what the probable starting big men worked on in the offseason?
“It is consistency and just making the right decisions night in and night out,” Leuer said at the men’s basketball team’s media day. “You are going to have nights where the hoop is as big as the ocean, and you are going to have nights where you can’t buy one. As long as you are making the right decisions and the right reads the rest will take care of itself.”
Starting in place of graduated seniors Marcus Landry and Joe Krabbenhoft, Nankivil and Leuer are replacing two of the most prolific forwards in head coach Bo Ryan’s history.
Called “stat-stuffers” by Ryan, Krabbenhoft and Landry leave a combined 21 points per game, 11 rebounds per game and a void in leadership the two new big men on campus must help fill.
On the other side of the ball, both Landry and Krabbenhoft left their marks — sometimes physical — as two of the best defensive players in the Big Ten.
For Leuer, the points and rebounds aren’t the difficult part of following in their footsteps.
“Joe and Marcus were willing to sacrifice for the better of the team,” Leuer said. “And that is the big thing. If we are willing to stick our nose in there for a loose ball, that is what Joe would always do, or grab a rebound like Marcus would, I don’t see any problem with us continuing there legacy.”
“I wouldn’t call it pressure,” Nankivil added. “I think it’s just time to step up and play.”
Preparing for more minutes in the physical Big Ten, both Leuer and Nankivil focused on improving conditioning and strength in the offseason.
Estimating he played last season at 212 pounds, Leuer said he put on 16 pounds of muscle to weigh in at 228 pounds currently.
Already able to shoot from behind the 3-point line and take big defenders off the dribble, the added strength should help Leuer succeed in the post demands of Ryan’s swing offense.
“An emphasis was definitely in getting stronger mainly in our legs and our core,” Leuer said. “Its just little things like when you catch the ball in the post, you can get pushed or bumped off and you travel. Its just little things like that can help.”
For Nankivil, Ryan singled out the junior as someone whose conditioning improved drastically from one season to the next.
Taking part in the famed Elver Park hill run, Nankivil’s hard work this summer paid off.
“I really like the way Keaton and Jon ran the hill and that is a start,” Ryan said. “Their feet, their drive, their stamina. It was Keaton couldn’t who do the hill last year … but now Keaton, man he just ran out there and blew the hill.”
So if Nankivil and Leuer are replacing Landry and Krabbenhoft, who will fulfill the role the current juniors held last season?
The smart money is on redshirt freshman Jared Berggren.
Listed at 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds, the Minnesota native has size and quickness — a strong combination to earn playing time in the swing offense.
For his part, Berggren considers himself the “prototypical forward” for the Wisconsin offense.
“I think [the swing offense] is a perfect fit for my game,” Berggren said. “Playing down low, being able to step outside, shoot some midrange shots, passing out of the post or into the post.”
Whether Berggren will see the court or not, Ryan makes it impossible to predict right now.
Although it is hard to believe, Ryan claims this early in camp, everyone has equal standing in his eyes.
“At this stage of the game I don’t ever have anybody behind or ahead of anybody else,” Ryan said. “How do you know Jared Berggren isn’t better than Jon Leuer right now?”