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Whole new (ball) game: Badgers using a different basketball this season

December 22, 2018
UW's Ethan Happ takes aim on a free throw with the Wilson basketball in a game earlier this season.

Ethan Happ and his University of Wisconsin men’s basketball teammates didn’t need to hear a sales pitch from coaches and administrators when the program made a significant equipment change in the offseason.

After a long run using a Sterling basketball, the Badgers made the switch to Wilson in May. The move was greeted with open arms by Happ and Co.

“Everyone likes it,” Happ said as the No. 16 Badgers (9-2) prepared for a game against Grambling State (6-6) on Saturday at the Kohl Center. “It’s the best. That’s the best college basketball you can get.”

UW had been using the Sterling ball since former coach Bo Ryan took over the program in 2001. Ryan’s relationship with the company based near Seattle began during his run at UW-Platteville, and he remained loyal to Sterling even though no other major conference programs were using its basketball.

When the contract with Sterling ran out, Badgers coach Greg Gard began looking around and settled on one of the giants in the basketball industry.

“It was a time to make a change,” Gard said, “and that was the best option to go to.”

One major reason UW made the move to Wilson was because it’s the ball used in the NCAA tournament. Three players interviewed for this story didn’t have any complaints with the Sterling ball, but each said the one produced by Wilson is an upgrade.

“I loved the Sterling balls, but this is the tournament ball,” UW sophomore guard Brad Davison said. “That’s where we want to be at the end of the year, so as much experience and opportunity you get to have that ball in your hand, the better.”

UW’s options were limited to some degree because of its apparel deal with Under Armour. While that 10-year deal that began in 2016 doesn’t require the men’s basketball program to use Under Armour basketballs — “We have flexibility to use the ball of our choice,” associate athletic director Justin Doherty said — it does prohibit the university from entering deals with direct competitors of the Maryland-based company.

Translation: Nike and Adidas weren’t options when UW went looking for a new basketball to use.

Under Armour also likely wasn’t much of an option considering its ball has received heavy criticism from players, including a pair of former Badgers. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig expressed their distaste for the ball in a State Journal story in 2016 before the deal between UW and Under Armour went into effect.

The UW football and volleyball programs also have contracts with programs other than Under Armour. It should be noted the UW women’s basketball team uses the Under Armour ball.

The direct competitor provision left the men’s program with options that included Wilson, Spalding and The Rock, among others. The decision was a no-brainer, according to UW officials.

“It’s the ball that they use in the NCAA tournament,” Doherty said of Wilson. “If you had to kind of boil it down to a reason to why we’re using that one, obviously that’s it.”

The three-year deal with Wilson is so straightforward the contract is just over a page long. The company provides UW with 36 “Wilson NCAA Game Basketballs, which include embossment stamping logos at no additional cost.” UW, in return, must grant Wilson the title sponsor at one mutually agreed upon event.

While Gard — and Ryan before him — had a personal deal with Sterling, he doesn’t have one with Wilson.

“Wilson’s always had a really good reputation, hence why it’s used in the NCAA tournament and that whole run,” Gard said. “It was the right time and made everything logically added up to do that.”

What isn’t so logical is the NCAA doesn’t require a specific brand of basketball be used by all teams. Section 16 of the men’s basketball rulebook is centered entirely on requirements for the ball, but its 10 articles focus on ensuring a certain level of consistency.

Those regulations include shape (“the ball must be spherical”); color (either Orange 151, Red-Orange 173 or Brown 1535); makeup (“leather or a composite material and shall consist of tiny raised protrusions densely spaced over the entire surface of each panel so as to form a pebbled appearance”); circumference (between 29½ and 30 inches); and weight (not less than 20 ounces, no more than 22 ounces).

“I wish that collectively all college basketball used it,” Happ said of the Wilson ball, “but money rules the business.”

When UW prepares for road games, it practices with whatever brand its opponent uses. For instance, the Badgers will use only Nike balls in practice leading up to their game at Western Kentucky on Dec. 29.

Players can be picky when it comes to basketballs.

UW sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice said he likes ones that are a “little bit sticky. Not the newer balls that are slick.”

Happ wasn’t a fan of the Adidas and Under Armour basketballs because he had a hard time gripping them. His test for a good ball is how easily he can palm it off a dribble.

Davison and his basketball are practically companions. He takes one with him on the road to help get a feel for it and admitted he might even take a Nike ball with him over Christmas break to get an early start on preparation for the Western Kentucky game.

In the next breath, Davison said the issue of what basketballs work best might be a bit overblown.

“Once you start playing,” said Happ, agreeing with that assessment, “you don’t even think about it twice.”

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