Historically, University of Wisconsin men’s basketball’s greatest strength has been the program’s ability to recruit and develop dependable four-year players. It’s also their greatest weakness, as evidenced by the rocky start to the 2017-18 season thus far.
The Badgers find themselves sitting at an ugly 9-9, and sorely missing the veteran presence of last year’s wily seniors: Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown, Zak Showalter and Bronson Koenig. Ethan Happ has been forced to incur the brunt of the burden for the team, but even the All-American is finding out the hard way – you can’t do it alone.
Entering the season, it was clear the team’s success would hinge on the maturation of core pieces like D’Mitrick Trice, Brevin Pritzel and Khalil Iverson. An underwhelming start to the season from this trio, and the loss of Trice to injury, led Coach Greg Gard to trot out highly-touted freshman Brad Davison and Kobe King for increased minutes in a bit of a sink-or-swim experiment.
It would seem that Davison chose to swim. A pleasant surprise in the otherwise gloomy season, the freshman guard earned a starting spot and became the second-leading scorer on the team — 12.1 per game — behind Happ. He’s shooting just under 38 percent from beyond the arc and playing stellar defense, averaging over a steal per game.
King’s early December injury derailed his season after only 10 games, and he will return next year as a medical redshirt — a freshman once again.
Happ, despite the team’s shortcomings, is a consistent leader. Although his output is not a huge step forward from last season, considering the attention defenses can now dispense toward him it is no surprise. Leading the team in scoring — 16.4 per game — and assists — 3.4 per game — Happ has not disappointed.
Wisconsin basketball has famously entered the NCAA Tournament in 19 consecutive seasons. This year, the hope of a 20th is dwindling by the day. Tuesday night’s loss at the hands of the No. 3 Purdue Boilermakers does not help things and was illustrative of the season at large. Happ had another excellent outing, dropping 15 points to go with his seven rebounds and seven steals. But as has been the theme, there is only so much the star forward can do on his own. Not a single other player reached double digits or had more than two assists.
While the likelihood of a salvaged season resulting in any reasonable definition of success seems unlikely, there is still plenty of value to be gained from the remaining 12 games in the regular season.
Just as a baseball player swings with a weighted bat before stepping up to the plate, Happ’s season of lonesome struggle could prove to strengthen him in the long run. In his senior season next year, it is almost certain that Happ will be accompanied by a stronger supporting cast. Defenses will no longer be able to pay him the same inordinate attention when the Badgers can play a more balanced roster. Things can only get easier for Ethan Happ.
How Good Are Davison, Pritzel and Ford?
With the aforementioned injuries to King and Trice, the spotlight has been set squarely on Davison, Pritzel and Aleem Ford to gauge their ceilings and potential contributions for seasons to come.
Davison’s encouraging play early on has proven to be more than just a hot start and he looks to be a starter or even a future star player down the line.
Pritzel, after making his way into the rotation last season, has impressed at times this year. He already has an 18-point outing, as well as a pair of 17 point games, and has been taking care of the basketball, averaging only 0.5 turnovers per game. A smart, skilled shooter, Pritzel will figure in the Badgers future as a key piece moving forward.
Ford seems to be just getting started. While this season he hasn’t made a ton of noise, he’s been able to get right in the mix of Gard’s rotation, starting 13 games. When you watch the 6-8 wing, it is obvious he’s a natural shooter. He’s got as smooth a stroke as anyone on the team, and his scorching 0.455 3-point percentage will attest to that.
This season may be judged as a failure, compared with the preceding years of sustained success. But for a team with youth and potential in abundance, this year may only be regarded as a minor setback in the grand of scheme of things.