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Badgers men’s basketball: Nate Reuvers facing another tough assignment

January 17, 2018 GMT

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — As the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team celebrated a victory over Indiana earlier this month, a round of playful banter led to Ethan Happ issuing a challenge to Nate Reuvers.

Happ wanted to wrestle, right there in the middle of the Badgers’ locker room at the Kohl Center. Reuvers declined, but he saw an opportunity and jumped on it.

Literally.

“That was a mistake,” Reuvers said. “As he walked away, I tried to jump him from behind. Ten seconds later, I was in a pretty good hold.”

A headlock, in fact, and it came with a warning. Reuvers could tap out this time, Happ told him, but he wouldn’t be so lucky if he tried it again.

The episode highlighted a couple things about Reuvers, who is 13 games into his career with the Badgers.

It was a lesson to the 6-foot-10, 215-pound freshman forward that he’s a boy among men in the Big Ten Conference. That time, it was Happ, who’s in his fourth year in the program and outweighs Reuvers by 20 pounds.

Last week, it was Nebraska’s Jordy Tshimanga, who is 6-11, 268 pounds, and had a 50-plus pound advantage on Reuvers during the Cornhuskers’ 63-59 win over the Badgers.

And now for Reuvers’ biggest challenge to date: Isaac Haas, a 7-2, 290-pound behemoth and one of four senior starters for No. 3 Purdue (17-2, 6-0 Big Ten), which hosts UW (9-9, 2-3) Tuesday night at Mackey Arena.

Big Ten play has, in some ways, seemed like a wrestling match for Reuvers.

“The first four games weren’t as physical,” he said, “but Nebraska was a little more physical. It’ll be at next level against Purdue.”

But Reuvers is a willing participant, whether the ring is in the paint or on the floor of the locker room. If there’s one thing that’s become evident about Reuvers since he stepped foot on campus last summer, it’s that he doesn’t shy away from contact.

Even Happ noticed that right away.

“He’s got a nose for the ball,” Happ said. “He’s always in there with offensive rebounds, tipping things around. That helps us a lot.”

Craving contact

The sneak attack on Happ in the locker room was something an annoying little brother would do, and that’s a role that comes naturally to Reuvers.

He’s the youngest of five children, four of whom are boys. The next closest in age, Jonathan, is less than a year older and the two spent their childhood getting into skirmishes with one another.

Once, while watching a soccer game involving his older sons, Paul Reuvers had to break apart a fight between Jonathan and Nate that had spilled onto the field and caused a stoppage of play.

As the youngest, Nate got picked on, but he’d always fight back. When a neighbor asked Jonathan what to do when Nate got mad during backyard football games, the advice was simple. Run, and run fast.

“He’s always been a tough kid,” Paul Reuvers said.

Nate averaged 25.6 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks as a senior last season at Lakeville North High School in suburban Minneapolis, but he proudly boasts of another stat he accumulated.

“I led the team in double fouls,” he said. “When somebody hits me, I like to hit back. The best time to hit someone is on rebounds. Just get an elbow on him when the refs aren’t looking. It’s different now. You’ve got cameras everywhere in college basketball.”

Nate was also a standout on the soccer field, a goalie with a huge wingspan. Even on the pitch, he craved for physical contact: a hip check to an opponent while defending his goal or the time, he says nonchalantly, when he lunged fist-first to send the ball out of harm’s way and instead punched an opposing attacker.

“He’s really a competitor,” said Teresa Reuvers, Nate’s mother. “I think as he gets bigger and stronger, you’ll see more of that. But for right now, he’ll just have to scrap.”

Teresa Reuvers says her son has an edge to him, and it reminds her of another former Lakeville North standout: J.P. Macura, the senior guard at Xavier who has a built a reputation for riling up opposing players, coaches and fans, including those at the Kohl Center during the Musketeers’ 80-70 win over UW earlier this season.

The Reuvers and Macura families are friends.

“We always say Nate’s got a little bit of J.P. in him,” Teresa said.

‘Perfect fit’

Macura was a senior at Lakeville North when Reuvers was a freshman and, back then, the idea their son would become a Division I basketball player didn’t even seem realistic to Paul and Teresa.

Paul thought Nate could develop into a Division III player and perhaps play close to home at St. Olaf or Saint John’s. But Nate kept growing, both in terms of height and skill level.

While Paul and his other sons also stood around 6-4, Nate was 6-6 by his freshman year in high school and didn’t stop there. Even now, at a legitimate 6-10, his mother isn’t sure her youngest is done growing yet.

By the end of his sophomore season, even though he wasn’t a starter, Division I scholarship offers had begun to trickle in and Nate realized basketball was his ticket. So he stepped away from soccer, even though he would have been the starting goalie for a good team the following season.

By the time he orally committed to UW in May of his junior year, Reuvers had more than two dozen offers and almost certainly would have added to that list during the AAU evaluation period in July.

But by that point, Badgers coach Greg Gard and his assistants had sold Reuvers on the program’s history of developing big men. Two names got mentioned more than others: Frank Kaminsky and Jon Leuer.

“We would talk to coaches from other schools and they’d be like, ‘I really want him, but if he goes to Wisconsin we understand,’ ” Teresa Reuvers said. “That’s kind of cool when the other coaches are recruiting you and still saying you’re the perfect fit for Wisconsin.”

Change of plans

Nate was onboard with redshirting this season, but that plan changed on Thanksgiving night when Gard called Paul and Teresa with an audible.

All the reasons why sitting out would be valuable to Nate were still true. “But,” Gard told them, “I just really need him right now.”

A lack of consistent production from the junior trio of Alex Illikainen, Charlie Thomas and Andy Van Vliet had forced Gard’s hand five games into the season.

He was looking for a better defensive fit and for more toughness.

Enter Reuvers, who went from not playing to the first big man off the bench and, now, a starter.

Reuvers has struggled with his shot, and his overall field goal percentage stands at 39.2. Better offensive numbers — he’s averaging 5.7 points per game — will come in time, particularly as Reuvers adds some strength and becomes better equipped to finish through contact around the rim.

“We wish he had another 20 or 30 pounds. I wish I could give it to him,” Paul Reuvers said. “But we knew he was going to take some lumps this season.”

The area of Reuvers’ game that has impressed Gard the most is on the defensive end. He leads the Badgers with 16 blocks, an average of 1.2 per game, and has drawn kudos from Gard for his ability to defend in ball-screen situations.

“He’s caught on to what we want to do in those situations quickly,” UW assistant coach Howard Moore said. “No matter what you do and how you play it, if you’re not down in a stance, if you don’t have good feet and anticipate and use your length when you can, then you have trouble. He’s been able to negate things, even if it’s a quicker ball handler, he can use his length to negate that. He’s on the right path.”

UW assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft, who recruited Reuvers, raved about how Reuvers carries himself in the classroom and the community.

“All the things we want off the court,” Krabbenhoft said. “But there’s something about that white line when he steps across about it, he becomes a fighter.

“He turns into somebody different, which I love. If there’s a scrum, usually you’ll find Nate in the battle. He doesn’t shy away from anything.”