MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin dismantled South Carolina State 85-50 at the Kohl Center on Friday night in the Badgers’ season opener. The Bulldogs hung around into the second half, but the Badgers closed the game on a 30-6 run to cruise to an easy victory.
Here are 5 things we learned about Wisconsin from the game:
1. Andy Van Vliet has come a long way
Badgers forward Andy Van Vliet scored 18 points to go with 8 rebounds Friday night and was a nuisance for South Carolina State behind the 3-point line. He buried 4 of 5 3-pointers but also demonstrated nice touch around the rim. For an idea of how far Van Vliet has progressed, consider that he scored a total of 18 points all of last season, when he played 48 minutes over 14 games.
Van Vliet was so disappointed in his performance following last season that he contemplated transferring. But the 7-footer decided to stay and re-dedicated himself to the program, changing his diet and working on his deficiencies. The results already are showing.
“It felt good to be on the floor,” Van Vliet said. “After two years of not really playing, to finally be playing in the Kohl Center, it’s a blessing. This offseason, I just attacked it, worked out every day. I had my people around me to support me. I knew there was going to be an opportunity, so I grabbed it.”
South Carolina State simply didn’t have the size to match up with Van Vliet, so it’s difficult to tell how Friday’s performance will translate when Big Ten play begins. But it certainly was an encouraging sign for the Badgers, who desperately need frontcourt help around star Ethan Happ.
“It’s hard to compete against a 7-footer that can really shoot the ball from deep like that, especially when you’re 6-feet and he’s 7-feet on the wing,” South Carolina State coach Murray Garvin said. “There was a couple of shots we were right there, but with his high release, on our end, there’s not much you can do about that but be there and compete on the shot.”
Badgers coach Greg Gard said that, despite the offensive numbers, he didn’t think Van Vliet played particularly well on defense. Van Vliet sat for stretches and played a total of 22 minutes. Gard is trying to help Van Vliet understand that he can impact the game even if he doesn’t see the ball go in the basket, which is something Van Vliet will continue to work on this season. Still, his season-opening performance was encouraging.
“He’s developed so much over the offseason,” Badgers point guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “Now you can see that he can stretch the floor and a lot of teams will key in on that, but he can also face up towards the basket in the paint. He’s doing a great job of rebounding. He can improve on that, but he’s definitely becoming an all-around skilled player.”
2. Balanced scoring will be a major key to help Ethan Happ
There is little question Happ will be the most consistent player for Wisconsin this season given his talent and experience. He put together his typical all-around performance Friday when he tallied 20 points with 11 rebounds and connected on 8 of 11 field-goal attempts. But the most encouraging sign for Wisconsin was that so many players around him were able to score.
Wisconsin’s scoring versatility was on display during the team’s five-game August exhibition tour of New Zealand and Australia. Five different players led the Badgers in scoring, and none of them was Happ. On Friday, three other players joined Happ in double figures in scoring. Van Vliet scored 18 points, Brevin Pritzl tallied 17 points and Trice contributed 13 points.
Van Vliet, Pritzl and Trice were excellent, particularly from beyond the arc. Those three players combined to hit 10 of 21 3-pointers. Last month, Pritzl said he anticipated opponents would double-team Happ early in the season and make other players beat them. UW-Stout employed that tactic in one of Wisconsin’s exhibition games last week to no avail. And the more several Badgers players score, the harder it becomes to attempt the strategy.
“I think that’s a unique thing and hopefully will be a major weapon for this team is that we have multiple guys,” Gard said. “We don’t have to be dependent on one person or a couple people. So I think we have the ability to spread it around a little bit and whoever happens to find themselves in the right spot at the right time, it could be their night.”
3. There will be freshman moments for Kobe King and Brad Davison
King and Davison have proven they are far more advanced than most freshmen who come into Wisconsin’s program. King led Wisconsin in scoring during the team’s Red-White scrimmage and in both of the Badgers’ exhibition games. With the way he and Davison play, it’s easy to forget they are freshmen.
But both King and Davison had moments of uncertainty Friday in what was their first official game as Badgers players. Davison missed his first two 3-point attempts, including one from the left corner that hit the side of the backboard. King didn’t even score in the first half. King finished with 6 points and 3 rebounds while Davison tallied 5 points and 2 assists. Davison also drew the first of what will be many charges in his Wisconsin career.
There were bound to be some nerves for the two freshmen, but Badgers fans should be excited about what they can offer this program in the coming years.
4. Wisconsin needs help off the bench from its frontcourt
Gard is still attempting to determine how best to rotate his frontcourt players off the bench. But it seems quite likely that consistency issues will remain a concern for the foreseeable future. Though Happ and Van Vliet combined for 38 points and 19 rebounds, Aleem Ford, Aaron Moesch, Charlie Thomas and Alex Illikainen combined for 6 points and 4 rebounds. No one expects those four players to fill up the stat sheet like Happ and Van Vliet, but the Badgers could use more from them.
Ford is in position to earn the most minutes among those frontcourt players off the bench. He played 15 minutes Friday and finished with 3 points and 3 rebounds. Thomas didn’t score in 8 minutes while Moesch scored 3 points in 4 minutes. Illikainen continues to struggle in limited minutes. He played only 3 minutes Friday and finished with 1 turnover. During Wisconsin’s two exhibition games last week, he committed 5 turnovers in 14 minutes played.
One player with the potential to help Wisconsin this season is freshman center Nate Reuvers. But Reuvers didn’t suit up Friday because he is still considering whether to redshirt this season. He’s in a difficult spot because he has to weigh whether it’s worth not redshirting to play a few minutes a game. He needs to bulk up and could come back a much more confident player next season.
5. The Badgers don’t have to worry about Brevin Pritzl’s shooting stroke
Last season was a difficult one for Pritzl, who couldn’t find his rhythm in limited minutes off the bench. He made only 5 of 21 3-pointers during the season (23.8 percent) even though he consistently hit shots in practice. Badgers forward Nigel Hayes even claimed that Pritzl was one of the best shooters in the country because of what he had seen in practice.
Now, Pritzl has ascended into a starting role for Wisconsin, and he doesn’t have to worry about whether he’ll play enough to break through any slumps. Pritzl connected on 3 of 6 3-pointers in the season opener on his way to 17 points. He also played 28 minutes, which tied for the second-most on the team behind Trice’s 33 minutes.
“Ethan’s gotten on me about taking shots,” Pritzl said. “I’m a good shooter, so I’ve kind of listened to him a little more. I’ve got to be a little more aggressive, but still just trying to make the easiest play for us.”
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