Challenging early schedule offers shot at redemption for Badgers men’s basketball team
CINCINNATI — Even before injuries left the backcourt short-handed early in the 2017-18 season, the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team put itself in an undesirable position.
For a team replacing four starters, a string of challenging non-conference games offered both a measuring stick and, the Badgers hoped, opportunities to start building a solid resume.
Instead, after UW lost three winnable games in a span of six days in mid-November, Ethan Happ and his teammates found themselves in a hole from which they’d never escape.
“That kind of killed morale a little bit,” Happ said.
A lot of factors led to the Badgers finishing 15-18 last season and missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years, including youth, injuries and lack of development from some upperclassmen on the roster. But Happ and others wonder if things could have been different had UW won some of those early games.
The Badgers say they’ve learned some painful lessons from those experiences and will flip the script this season. Now that a meaty portion of their schedule has arrived, they’ll get a chance to prove it.
Not much could be gleaned from a season-opening rout of Coppin State last week due to the quality — or lack thereof — of the opponent. But plenty should be learned about the Badgers during a nine-game stretch that could include eight matchups against programs from the six major conferences.
That run begins tonight for Greg Gard’s team when Xavier (2-0) hosts UW (1-0) in the Gavitt Tipoff Games at the Cintas Center.
“The more opportunities you have early in the season, the better,” UW sophomore guard Brad Davison said. “Coach is big on momentum. He talks about getting a win, coming back and following it up with a great day of practice, then another great day of practice and that momentum carries that into the next game.”
UW failed to generate any momentum early last season, starting with an 80-70 home loss to Xavier.
After D’Mitrik Trice made a jumper to give the Badgers a 66-64 lead with 2 minutes, 42 seconds remaining, the Musketeers answered with a 12-0 run to take control of the game.
From there, UW traveled to Kansas City for a tournament and lost games to Baylor and UCLA by a combined seven points.
“We were super young and struggled with end-of-game situations,” UW junior guard Brevin Pritzl said. “You learn a lot from those games. I think a lot of that was we just needed to learn how we all fit.”
Losses to Virginia, Ohio State and Temple followed. The Badgers were 4-6 when Trice (foot) and Kobe King (knee) were lost to season-ending injuries, then got stomped at home by Marquette to fall three games below .500. A five-game winning streak got UW back above that mark, but it lost eight of nine Big Ten games at one point to put the possibility of earning an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament completely out of reach.
“You know you’re good enough to compete with those teams, but you’re not necessarily getting the results that you want,” Davison said. “That kind of makes you overthink things and, I guess, doubt what you’re doing and doubt your abilities to finish those games.
“The best way to get confidence is to go through those experiences. I think now, having everyone on our team back and going through that experience, we have that sour taste in our mouth and by the end of the year we learned how to win those close games.”
UW could find itself in plenty of close games over the next month. The Badgers travel to the Bahamas next week for the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they’ll play Stanford in the opening round and either Florida or Oklahoma the following day. The other side of the bracket includes No. 4 Virginia and Butler.
UW will close November by hosting North Carolina State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and traveling to Iowa for the Big Ten opener. The opening week of December includes a home game against Rutgers and a trip to Marquette.
“It’s almost like you can look at it from a game perspective,” Happ said. “You get a couple of buckets early and you always play better. You get a nice flow going and you get a couple wins early and that sets the tone for the season.”
It all starts with a road game against the Musketeers, who are in the midst of transition.
Chris Mack left for Louisville after nearly a decade in charge of the Xavier program. The keys have been turned over to longtime assistant Travis Steele, who has opened with home wins over IUPUI and Evansville.
Opponents have shot 43.3 percent (26 of 60) from 3-point range in Xavier’s first two games. Evansville connected 17 times from beyond the arc, the most ever by a Xavier opponent.
The Musketeers are in the process of replacing three starters — including the terrific backcourt of Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura — from a team that won 29 games in 2017-18.
“Man-to-man and zone, we’ve got to be a lot better,” Steele said after the 91-85 win over Evansville. “That goes on me, not our players. I always say, ‘Undisciplined players are coached by undisciplined coaches.’”
Illikainen leaves program
Senior Alex Illikainen has left the program, the team announced Monday afternoon.
Illikainen will remain enrolled in school, according to a news release.
The 6-foot-9 forward didn’t play against Coppin State. Twelve UW players appeared in the blowout, including walk-ons Michael Ballard and Walt McGrory, but Illikainen remained on the bench.
“We wish Alex luck as he continues to pursue earning his degree from the University of Wisconsin in May,” Gard said in a statement. “We also want to thank him for his efforts during his three-plus years with our program.”
Illikainen averaged 1.5 points and 1.3 rebounds while appearing in 85 games during his career, all as a reserve. His playing time decreased each season, going from 9.8 minutes per game in 33 appearances as a freshman to 8.3 in 27 games as a sophomore to 6.8 in 25 games as a junior.
He’s the second member of UW’s five-man recruiting class to leave the program. Forward Andy Van Vliet transferred to William & Mary following the 2017-18 season.