Badgers men’s basketball: Wisconsin coaches are confident underclassmen ready for challenge
A month after the 2016-17 season ended, Joe Krabbenhoft was sitting in his office at the Kohl Center.
The heartache from an 84-83 overtime loss to Florida in the Sweet 16 wasn’t gone, but the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coaching staff had turned the page because, well, they had no choice.
Offseason workouts were underway and Badgers coach Greg Gard, along with Krabbenhoft and fellow assistants Howard Moore and Dean Oliver, had begun the process of preparing for the 2017-18 season.
There were a lot of big holes to fill following the departure of a talented senior class that included Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown. But as Krabbenhoft chatted with a reporter that spring day, it was easy to see he was eager to be working through that challenge.
“Sure, there are a lot of question marks,” said Krabbenhoft, who played for the Badgers from 2005-09. “But I’m excited about it. That feels like the way it should be for me. It kind of feels like teams I was on, where everybody was going, ‘I wonder who’s going to be the starter at this spot and who’s coming off the bench?’ ”
Gard considers it a badge of honor whenever he hears the words “developmental program” used to describe the Badgers, but that label will be put to the test this season.
Junior center Ethan Happ, a first-team All-Big Ten pick last season, is the only returning starter for the Badgers. He’s also the only player on the roster with more than 1,000 career minutes played.
While he has been through this type of offseason as an assistant under Bo Ryan, this is the first time since Gard took over the program in December of 2015 he begins a season with so much inexperience on the roster. But those lessons from previous years have come in handy as he leads a team picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten Conference.
“There’s no pixie dust,” Gard said. “There’s no magic wand we wave.”
Time to work
One of the reasons Gard and his staff entered the offseason with a quiet confidence was because they felt they had the right personnel in place.
“I think the bottom line is, we’ve always had guys that understand how important hard work is,” Gard said. “The key is, everybody can do it when the coaches are around, everybody can do it when we’re doing the workouts. It’s the guys that really have committed to it when the coaches aren’t around.”
When the Badgers began their offseason workouts in the spring, they were allowed two hours each week to work on the court. That time was spent setting a foundation of fundamentals.
For post players, it might be a series of drills working on footwork or sealing defenders. For the guards, it might be drills focused on tightening up their ball-handling in pressure situations. For all players, working on shooting form is a big emphasis during the spring.
When the Badgers returned for an eight-week summer session and a crop of freshmen joined the group, establishing fundamental skills was again a big part of the process. This offseason was a little different because UW had 10 extra practices to prepare for a 12-day trip to Australia and New Zealand that included five exhibition games.
The other part of the process that is equally important is the time the players spend with strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland throughout the year.
Helland, like Gard, believes in a methodical process that doesn’t include shortcuts. He stresses the importance of proper nutrition and sleep and constantly reminds players about the importance of getting something out of each workout.
“You have to value fractions, because cumulatively that’s how we get better,” Helland said. “There’s nothing sexy about this. It’s just the work.”
If there’s a poster child for player development at UW, it’s Frank Kaminsky.
After spending his first two seasons as a bench player, Kaminsky exploded on the scene as a junior in 2013-14 and became the national player of the year his following season.
Helland’s arrival was a big key for Kaminsky, who worked on gaining strength in his lower body between his sophomore and junior seasons.
“And Frank didn’t get any special drill or any different treatment than anybody else that came through here,” Gard said. “It’s what he did and how he took advantage of it. It’s what he did when the coaches weren’t around. That’s still the key. What will you do when you don’t have a coach in your ear?”
There was one other key factor in Kaminsky’s big jump: available minutes.
“The best thing for Frank was the graduation of Jared Berggren because as a freshman and sophomore, Frank would run to the scorer’s table, go in and Jared would come over and get his cup of water. Frank got caught looking at the scorer’s table like, ‘When am I coming out?’ When he got to be a junior, there wasn’t anybody sitting at the scorer’s table. It was sink or swim time.”
Gard is hoping the same thing happens with the members in UW’s 2015 recruiting class now that there are no upperclassmen blocking their path to playing time.
Of that group, only junior swingman Khalil Iverson has had a consistent spot in the rotation the past two seasons.
Brevin Pritzl, a third-year sophomore, played 195 minutes last season and appears poised to step into a starting role at the shooting guard spot.
Junior forward Andy Van Vliet, who played 48 minutes in 2016-17, will have an expanded role this season. Two other junior forwards, Charlie Thomas and Alex Illikainen, are trying to find a spot in the rotation after playing fewer minutes as sophomores than they did as freshmen.
Illikainen said he’s noticed a change in tone from the coaching staff since the end of last season. It’s the sound of urgency.
“They’re being harder on me,” he said. “They know I can do it. They’re getting at us and making us work harder. We have no wiggle room with messing up because we shouldn’t. We’ve been here for two years.”
Pritzl said it’s time for the group to take a big step.
“We haven’t really set ourselves apart, other than Khalil,” he said. “None of us have really played. It’s time for us to finally take some steps forward and make an impact.”
If UW’s track record of player development is any indication, that’s exactly what will happen this season.
“Being a developmental program, we’re proud of that,” Krabbenhoft said. “I think our guys are excited about being the guys that are going to help keep this thing going.”