They enter their final games in a Wisconsin uniform not as Bo Ryan’s most celebrated class, nor its most star-studded. Their final game at the Kohl Center is now encapsulated as a bittersweet memory, and it is partially up to these seniors to determine how much longer the road stretches in the approaching Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
While not ripe with historic scorers or players who will soon have their numbers lifted to the rafters, this senior class is one representative of the mentality that has defined the Ryan era of Wisconsin basketball. Not a single one of them has averaged 12 points or more per game in a single season with the Badgers, and three of them grew from modest contributors to key pieces of a squad that finished fourth in an ultra-competitive Big Ten.
The five seniors — Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans, Dan Fahey and J.D. Wise — have watched students rush the Kohl Center floor three different times, and several played a critical role in the most memorable victories in recent program history. Each took time to reflect on their individual experience at this university last week before an emotional Senior Day loss to Purdue March 2.
Berggren is often classified as convincing proof of how Ryan molds a player with promising potential into a centerpiece of his system. After redshirting his first year, he saw limited action for his first two years before finally carving out a niche in the offense last season.
Standing at 6 feet 10 inches, Berggren turned into a defensive force and departs as Wisconsin’s all-time leader in career blocks, turning into Wisconsin’s most reliable inside scorer in his senior campaign. The Princeton, Minn. native said his five years in Madison flew by, and this team will likely only go as far as arguably its most complete player on both sides of the floor takes them.
When asked about the unifying traits between this group of seniors, he pointed to the struggles they have each endured, slowly scaling their way up the roster from rarely-used reserve to surefire starter.
“We’ve all gone through our own different struggles, whether it’s injuries or just playing poorly, just find a way to persevere,” Berggren said. “I think we’re just all kids that keep working, keep coming to work every day trying to get better, trying to learn from our mistakes and try to stay positive as much as possible and just find a way to get it done.”
After the Badgers dropped several key nonconference games to Virginia and then in-state rival Marquette earlier this year, it was Bruesewitz who led the call for a meeting that served as an open forum to discuss what this team needed to do to become nationally-relevant again.
While teammates may remember him as that unifying force, fans will fondly recall his energy and unforgiving hustle. His personality was best exemplified when he emerged from the swarm of students who had stormed the floor following an overtime victory over No. 3 Michigan earlier this season to grab the P.A. microphone and thank fans for their support.
“I think it will be awhile until I look back and be like, ‘Wow, that was really cool,’” Bruesewitz said. “I’ve always thought it was really cool, but I think it will take a little while for me to just sit back and be like, ‘Alright, that really happened, that was cool.’”
With a game fueled by the energy of the crowd and a style that fits perfectly with his moppy red hair, Bruesewitz has never averaged more than 6.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, which he currently averages, yet still managed to become a player the Grateful Red rallied around.
“I think one of the legacies we leave … is we won a lot of games when I was in uniform,” he said. “Not to say I did it all by myself, I had a lot of great teammates, but we won a lot of games. I feel that’s kind of what people are defined by is winning.”
In his senior campaign, Evans has often drawn the ire from friends for his lack of hesitation to pull the trigger on mid-range jumpers even when embroiled in the worst shooting slumps. But that point of contention often overshadows his value as a defender as the fifth-year senior was usually the primary man responsible for guarding the opponent’s most dangerous scorer over the last two seasons.
“I don’t think people realize how much we use him and how much of a factor he is even on the offensive end,” freshman forward Sam Dekker said. “Teams try to take him away, and it opens up looks for other guys and also on the defensive end he’s often guarding the better players on the other team.”
With tantalizing athleticism, the 6-foot-6-inch Evans entered the program as a raw athlete with an unrefined game and has become a double-double threat — despite his well-documented issues at the free throw line — in his final year with the Badgers.
The contributions of Fahey to this Badgers’ team are best represented by the pictures of him jumping from his benchside seat, arms outstretched and mouth agape as if he is holding back his teammates from rushing the floor following an especially ferocious dunk.
He has seen just 51 minutes on the floor and scored 13 points in his four years with UW, as Fahey’s most important contributions have come in practice. The Chicago native, who earned a walk-on offer from Ryan late in his senior year, has fully embraced his role as one of the leaders of Wisconsin’s scout team, where he is responsible for emulating the best backcourt players on the opposing roster.
“Early in my career, it was Brett Valentyn and Wquinton Smith. They were kind of the captains of the scout team, and J.D. and I always said that’s going to be our scout team one day,” Fahey said. “Maybe that was the point when we realized we weren’t going to play.
“But it’s just special. We’ve been here for four years, we know the teams, we know their offenses, so just having the younger guys being able to see us as a stabilizing force, it’s nice.”
As a boy growing up in Milwaukee, Wise was the standout athlete in his family and the classic in-state kid who dreamed of one day suiting up for one of the premier college basketball programs in his home state.
That spot did not come in the most conventional of ways — the 6-foot guard earned it through an open tryout as a freshman — but Wise nonetheless treasured the opportunity to fill one of the openings. With only 26 career minutes to his name, most of Wise’s work has come as another key piece of the scout team alongside Fahey.
And it was those two, Berggren said, that entered the weight room for grueling 7 a.m. lift sessions with hands clapping, ready to pump up their teammates for another day of offseason work.
“The incentive is we’re part of a winning program and the only way that a program can succeed is you’re only as good as you’re weakest link,” Wise said. “So if I’m considered one of those weaker links, I want to make sure I’m going harder than any of these other guys so they’re energy stays up, they’re getting better and at the same time I’m getting better.”