MADISON, Wis. — The student recreation center is located right next to the Kohl Center on Dayton Street at the University of Wisconsin. But the talent among basketball players on the courts inside both buildings could not be separated any further apart.
For proof, just ask Wisconsin sophomore Aaron Irving, who is learning first-hand about the distinct contrasts between the competition levels of the two locations. At the Southeast Recreation Facility (better known as the SERF), Irving spent the past year and a half dominating average Joes in games. At the Kohl Center, he has spent the past week and a half trying to keep pace with a Division I basketball program in practices.
“The SERF and Kohl Center are definitely two completely different things,” Irving said. “I’m used to being the No. 1 option at the SERF. I come here and I’m lucky to get a couple touches.”
Irving, a 6-foot-1, 164-pound guard, is the newest member of Wisconsin’s scout team, having joined the Badgers before the start of the second semester based on the recommendation of several players. His presence is a direct result of point guard Josh Gasser suffering a season-ending ACL tear on Oct. 27, which reduced the number of players in practice to 15.
When Gasser went down with the injury, the team needed an extra body, and members of the Badgers who had played with Irving at the SERF, including guards J.D. Wise and Traevon Jackson, helped him find a spot on the team.
“I played with a lot of the players previous times in the SERF,” Irving said. “I always hang out with the guys. Some of the guys are from my apartment complex. I’m really close with some of them.”
Irving said he initially emailed Badgers assistant coach Greg Gard about the possibility of joining the team last season but was informed there were no remaining roster spots. He maintained contact with Gard this season and became the beneficiary of Gasser’s unfortunate injury.
According to Gard, NCAA rules prohibit a team from holding tryouts once games begin, which put the Badgers in a difficult spot. Wisconsin had its first exhibition game Nov. 7 and its first regular-season game Nov. 11, and there was no time to bring players in for any workouts.
“We just picked the person that guys know, and you understand some things about him background-wise and academically,” Gard said. “There was a lot of red tape and hoops to jump through before he could come with us.”
Once Irving received the go-ahead email from Gard over winter break, he quickly packed his things from home and returned to campus on New Year’s Day to join the team at practice.
“I was so excited,” Irving said. “I had to let everybody know. My whole family was excited for me. They were like, ‘Well when’s the next plane leaving? We’ve got to get you out of here now.’ “
So who is Aaron Irving?
He played varsity basketball for three seasons at Millikan High School in Long Beach, Calif. As a senior, he averaged 13.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists and was named to the Southern Section All-League team. His best on-court attributes are quickness defensively and an ability to make open jump shots.
But Irving did not receive any interest from Division I basketball programs.
“Maybe my team wasn’t good enough to get looks,” he said. “I don’t know what it was.”
He came from a household in which a strong academic performance was valued heavily, which is one reason he said he applied to Wisconsin — where he is majoring in psychology. He also applied to Tulane, as well as Cal State Long Beach and San Diego State, which were closer to home.
Now, he has an opportunity to live out his dream as a Division I player, even if he has yet to obtain a jersey number during practices. Instead, the back of his scout team jersey is blank.
“I guess I’ve got to kind of earn my jersey number,” Irving said. “I’m out here working hard every day and sooner or later I’ll definitely get a number underneath this Wisconsin logo.”
On the court, Irving is still adjusting to the speed of high-major Division I practices after not playing organized basketball for nearly two years. Badgers center Jared Berggren noted that on Sunday, coach Bo Ryan stopped practice when Irving shot a layup before making the required number of passes during a three-man weave drill. Ryan forced Irving’s group to attempt the drill over again.
“It’s a little different,” Berggren said of the circumstances. “We really just wanted an extra body for the scout team with Josh being out. Just another guy who could come in and help give us looks. Crank it up defensively. He’s pretty athletic. He’s coming along.
“He was kind of thrown into the fire. We’re in the middle of the season. We’re all kind of sharpening the skills that we’ve been working on, and he was playing at the SERF for the last couple of months and hasn’t played organized basketball for two years. But he’s adjusting.”
Physically, Irving is nowhere near the level of his new teammates. At 164 pounds, he is the slimmest member of the team. Sophomore walk-on Jordan Smith is listed at 6-1, 175 pounds. Redshirt freshman point guard George Marshall is 5-11, 185 pounds.
“That’s the main thing everybody is saying is, ‘Man, we’ve got to get some muscle on you. You’re out here skin and bones,’ ” Irving said. “Definitely in the offseason I’m going to try to bulk up. They told me to drink some of this stuff in there that builds muscle mass. All the guys are helping me out trying to get me as strong as possible as quickly as possible.”
As for what the future holds for Irving and his Wisconsin basketball career, that is unknown. Irving said his long-term goal would be to stay with the team for the remainder of his college career, but that decision is beyond his control.
Wisconsin will lose reserve senior guards Wise and Dan Fahey to graduation, but the Badgers will bring in freshmen Bronson Koenig and Jordan Hill. Gasser also is expected to be healthy and ready to play next season.
“I obviously don’t want to start playing now and then have to leave next year, but I’m willing to do whatever is best for the university,” Irving said. “I’ve built a strong relationship with the guys that I’ve been with already. I want to stay here, make my teammates better and hopefully get some playing time.”