MADISON, Wis. — Maybe it’s a stretch to suggest coming down with mononucleosis was the best thing to ever happen to Duje Dukan. When he dropped 16 pounds, missed two weeks of school, saw his throat swell like a grapefruit and couldn’t ingest much more than fruit smoothies, it sure didn’t feel like some type of blessing.
In some respects, however, Dukan is thankful things transpired the way they did. Had he been healthy, he never would have considered using a redshirt season — and he likely rarely would have played behind three senior frontcourt starters on Wisconsin’s basketball team.
“That’s exactly how I look at it,” said Dukan, a redshirt junior. “When I thought about the whole situation in January, February, looking back on my freshman year and how against redshirting I was, I realized what a benefit it was in fact this past year. I don’t think people really realize what a benefit it is to redshirt.”
In Dukan’s case, it meant saving a year of eligibility and giving him a greater opportunity to see significant minutes on the court. His quest to achieve that goal will begin Wednesday, when No. 21 Wisconsin plays host to UW-Platteville at 7 p.m. in the Badgers’ lone exhibition game.
Dukan said he first felt the effects of mono last August, two days before he was set to return home from his birth town of Split, Croatia.
“I just didn’t feel right,” Dukan said. “I had a fever and wasn’t feeling too well. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. And then the whole trip back I just felt nauseous, didn’t feel so good, which usually never happens. I’m a pretty accustomed traveler. I’ve been going everywhere. I’m used to it. At that point, I knew something was wrong.”
When he finally visited a doctor, Dukan discovered the diagnosis and was forced to stay home in Deerfield, Ill., for two weeks. Dukan said his doctor told him overworked athletes who didn’t allow their bodies to recover were susceptible to the illness. Dukan then missed the beginning of fall semester and was bedridden while his father, Ivica, and mother, Gordana, took care of him. Gordana made Duje chicken and cut it into tiny shreds. Duje’s weight plummeted from 218 pounds to 202.
Though Dukan returned to basketball after being medically cleared, his strength was nearly nonexistent. Dukan played 13 minutes during an exhibition game against UW-Oshkosh, scored two points with three rebounds and felt exhausted. He knew then he couldn’t continue on the same path, and he informed Badgers coach Bo Ryan that he needed to take a redshirt year.
The decision ultimately came with its benefits.
“When you’re not playing, you have the mindset of frustration that you’re not playing,” Dukan said. “So you don’t really get to see the game with an open mind. Whereas when you know you’re not going to go in, you don’t have to worry about anything. You’re just kind of sitting there observing the game. You learn so much more being able to watch all the games last year, watch our guys, see how they react to certain things. And seeing our competition, how they react playing against us. I thought it was very informing and a great learning experience.”
With former Badgers Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren having exhausted their eligibility after last season, there would appear to be frontcourt minutes open for the taking this season. Wisconsin is likely to begin the year with a three-guard lineup and start Sam Dekker at forward and Frank Kaminsky at center. After that, Dukan could work his way into the rotation as a reserve alongside freshman Nigel Hayes.
“Whenever you get better physically, it always improves your confidence,” Badgers assistant coach Greg Gard said. “You feel better and you perform better. From that standpoint, he’s better. Now it’s a matter of applying that to things on the court. He’s learned. He’s had to play behind some pretty good players the last few years. He’s just trying to do what he can do to help this team. He’s definitely improved physically, which was the first step.”
In his career, Dukan has never played more than 11 minutes during a game or scored more than four pointes. But he did demonstrate some of his versatility during Wisconsin’s five-game Canadian exhibition tour in August, when he averaged 8.8 points per game. He also scored six points in 24 minutes during the team’s annual Red and White open scrimmage on Saturday.
Dukan is capable of playing the 3 or 4 spots on the floor and said he could play the 5 if the Badgers opted for a small lineup. Mostly, he is simply glad to have an opportunity to finally play meaningful minutes in his fourth year with the team.
“You’re playing the whole game in high school, used to being the core piece of your high school team,” Dukan said. “And then coming here was really a humbling experience. You have to find your niche and realize where you’re at.
“With the opportunity to get more than those 11 minutes this year, it’s obviously very exciting. I’m looking forward to the challenge and hopefully take advantage of all the opportunities.”