MADISON, Wis. — There’s a scene early in the satirical movie Major League in which two Cleveland Indians fans are discussing the team’s opening day lineup over lunch during a construction work break. As one supporter stares at the list of players from a newspaper, he shrugs his shoulders and looks up incredulously before making a declaration that would echo throughout the city.
Who are these (bleeping) guys?
Wisconsin’s basketball team has a far greater history of success than those fictitious Indians, and the remaining pieces aren’t exactly chopped liver. But as the Badgers embark on a new season without the star power of four well known and highly relied upon departed seniors, the general sentiment is the same. Even the players acknowledge as much.
“I think for a lot of fans, it’ll be a different team because you’re not going to necessarily know who we are out there at times,” Wisconsin guard Brevin Pritzl said. “You’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, who’s this guy that’s playing right now?’ There’s so many minutes that need to be filled. It’s just going to be a matter of carving out your role and excelling in it.”
The Badgers’ team dynamic will change in 2017-18 now that Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown are gone. Those four stalwarts combined to play an astounding 547 college games with 349 starts. They accounted for 55.9 percent of the minutes played last season, 59.7 percent of the points, 41.5 percent of the rebounds and 54.6 percent of the assists. Hayes finished third in school history in scoring (1,857 points), and Koenig set the program’s career 3-point record (270).
If ever there was a year in which Wisconsin needed extra practices and games before the season, this is it. Fortunately for the Badgers, they have been granted both opportunities.
Wisconsin will take part in a five-game, 12-day tour of New Zealand and Australia, which runs Aug. 12-24. The trip comes thanks to an NCAA rule that allows college basketball teams to travel internationally during the summer once every four years. It also provides the Badgers with an opportunity to practice 10 times in the lead-up to the trip, which has been vital in strengthening the confidence and cohesiveness of the team.
“I think it’s very valuable,” point guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “Especially with having a young team like we are. Just getting to know each and every one of our teammates, getting closer, bonding together. I think it’s really important for us to know how each and every one of us plays and get comfortable with each other before all these other teams have the opportunity to during the season. We get kind of a head start.”
The last Badgers group to travel in the summer ventured to Canada for five exhibition games in 2013. That team used the trip as a catalyst to a magical Final Four run nearly eight months later. Whether this year’s bunch can do the same remains to be seen. But first, it would probably help to determine which players will play and how much.
Wisconsin’s only returning starter is forward Ethan Happ, who averaged 14.0 points and 9.0 rebounds last season and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. Happ flourished as a redshirt sophomore, but he also had enough talent around him to take pressure of him needing to be the best player on the floor every game. That is likely to change this season.
“For me, it’s just going to be extremely weird,” Happ said. “Going through all my pre-game stuff, I have interactions with Vitto or Nigel or even Bronson in pre-game warm-ups, and now I’ve got to find new guys to fill those roles. Showy was a big vocal leader for us before the game. That part of it’s going to be different. But once we get onto the floor and we get playing, it’s just going to be normal.”
Trice will assume the starting point guard role previously occupied by Koenig. Trice averaged 5.6 points per game last season, while forward Khalil Iverson averaged 3.9 points. No other returning player averaged more than 2.2 points per game. Included in that group are forward Charlie Thomas (2.2 points), Pritzl (1.9), Andy Van Vliet (1.3) and Alex Illikainen (1.3).
Those four returning players, along with redshirt freshman Aleem Ford, will be vying for playing time. And each of them will have to demonstrate marked improvement to excel through the grind of a Big Ten campaign.
Pritzl, a redshirt sophomore, could take the biggest leap. Last season, Pritzl was tentative looking for scoring opportunities. He shot 34.2 percent from the field overall and connected on only 5 of 21 3-point attempts (23.8 percent). During one in-season interview, Hayes declared Pritzl “the best shooter in the country,” which showed up during practice but not the games.
“I know everybody saw my percentage — it was very bad last year,” said Pritzl, whose comments drew laughter from the assembled media Wednesday. “Being more comfortable, being out there will make the biggest difference.”
Given the lack of returning production, Wisconsin will require contributions from its three scholarship freshmen. All three — guard Brad Davison, guard Kobe King and center Nathan Reuvers — earned positive reviews on Wednesday. Reuvers, 6-foot-10, 220 pounds from Lakeville, Minn., can bang in the post and shoot from the perimeter. During a 4-on-4 drill in Wednesday’s practice, he showed his athleticism by blocking Happ under the basket.
“If you walked in and watched us play and you didn’t know who was who and I asked you who the freshmen were, you probably wouldn’t point to one of those three,” Badgers coach Greg Gard said. “It’s been big in terms of what they’ve walked in the door with but also how they’ve grown in the last six, eight weeks.
“They’ve really taken steps, specifically Reuvers. I’ve really been impressed with how he’s grown and for a big guy that size that can still get stronger and will get stronger, he has really grown a lot specifically in the last couple weeks here.”
Pritzl noted that practices thus far had been particularly intense because of the competition for potential minutes. As for what Wisconsin looks like the on the court, only time will tell.
“Hopefully a team that wins,” Happ said. “It’s the Wisconsin way to be up there in the mix with the top guys. We don’t want that to change. So I think that’s going to be something that we’re going to try to continue the success that we’ve had here.”
Wisconsin has reached 19 consecutive NCAA tournaments and finished in the top four of the Big Ten in 16 straight seasons. Gard and his players insist that just because there are new faces taking over in important roles doesn’t mean the Badgers can’t field a quality team.
And if you’re looking for inspiration, even the no-name Cleveland Indians in the movie Major League ultimately reached the postseason to end a playoff drought of 34 years.
“From a coaching standpoint, you’re really excited about what the future can be,” Gard said. “Where is it going to be in three weeks? Where will it be when we get off the plane on the 24th? We’ll know a lot more then, than what I know now. But I definitely am excited about where it’s going and what it can be. We’re far from a finished product, but the pieces are there.”