Over the past two decades, Wisconsin men’s basketball has been exceptional, making 19 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances prior to missing the event last year. While one can credit these accolades on the game plans of Coach Bo Ryan, and now Coach Greg Gard, none of the program’s success would be possible without the ability to recruit elite-level talent from across the country.
Assistant Coach Joe Krabbenhoft, who played under Ryan before joining Gard’s staff, explained the importance of the Wisconsin brand in recruiting players.
“I think that we offer enough academically, athletically, socially, culturally to the point where, if you’re good enough, there’s no reason you shouldn’t want to be a Badger,” Krabbenhoft said.
Despite the nationwide appeal of Wisconsin, the team’s primary pool of talent is still local in the Midwest.
When asked, Krabbenhoft acknowledged the need to search beyond Wisconsin’s borders for prospects while still recognizing the talent within the state.
“Recruiting’s gone nationwide. But at the same time, when I talk about priorities or regions, it obviously starts here at home,” Krabbenhoft said.
Most of the team’s roster — like starters Ethan Happ, Brad Davison, Brevin Pritzl and Nate Reuvers — remain within the geographic range of Minnesota to Ohio.
But that doesn’t mean that Badgers haven’t come from further both now and in the past. In recent years Aleem Ford decided to leave the southern heat of Lawrenceville, Georgia for a chance to be part of Wisconsin basketball.
Present in the gym when the Badgers were scouting Ohio native D’Mitrik Trice at IMG Academy in Florida, Ford immediately caught the eyes of Badger coaches and vice versa.
“You go down to see [Trice] and boom a guy catches your eye and when Wisconsin’s in the gym kids eyes light up,” Krabbenhoft said. “And that’s a good thing, that means people here have done a great job. Players here have represented our university here and our program very well.”
At the same time, Wisconsin’s focus on basketball fundamentals and merit-based playing time can make the team appear less appealing than schools that will typically make up their starting lineups from a revolving door of one and done prospects.
When asked, Krabbenhoft dismissed the notion that any incoming players should be guaranteed game action while still affirming that younger players can earn just as much floor time just as upperclassmen.
“You can’t predict the future,” said Krabbenhoft. “There are certainly opportunities to be had for all incoming players and all returning players.”
Krabbenhoft used last year as evidence that younger players can have a large role with the team citing that there were as many as four freshmen on the floor at times. Davison, Reuvers, Ford and Kobe King were all freshmen who received significant playing time last year.
Despite last year being somewhat of an oddity in young players getting significant playing time, Wisconsin has been known for developing their players. In this way, Wisconsin looks more for players with the potential to grow their game in different areas rather than be pure specialists.
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“I think we were ahead of the time here at Wisconsin in that the game has gone a little bit positionless,” said Krabbenhoft. “You might say we need a bigger wing. Well, that bigger wing could really handle the ball and turn into a point guard. Or that bigger wing could become big and strong enough to play the four and the five.”
Though getting these types of versatile athletes is important in continuing the program’s success Wisconsin, Krabbenhoft stressed that before anything coaches will look at how serious athletes are about education and being part of a team rather than solely focusing on individual goals.
In the past, Wisconsin’s commitment to academic and personal standards may have cost them talent, but it’s also why they’ve had so much consistency in what has been a very inconsistent era for other top programs.