Badgers’ schedule hasn’t allowed reserves much court time

MADISON, Wis. — The aches and pains that come with playing
extended minutes at the highest level of college basketball have not set in
just yet. We are, after all, only two games into a 31-game regular season.

So right now, we can’t know whether Wisconsin can sustain
using a seven- or eight-man playing rotation for the long haul. No one knows
whether it’s feasible given potential foul trouble, fatigue and other issues.

Through one week, however, that’s exactly what the Badgers
have tried. And while relying on veteran players is not unique in college
basketball, it is unusual to play with such a short bench so early in the
season.

No. 20 Wisconsin (2-0) will continue its quest to find a
playing rotation when it travels to face Green Bay (1-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday in
the Resch Center. And judging by the first two games, the minutes may be
tougher to spread around than initially anticipated.

Most coaches at this time of year would rather extend the
rotation to involve as many players as possible and allow them to gain valuable
experience. Badgers associate head coach Greg Gard noted that idea was easier
said than done, particularly with Wisconsin having opened the season against
St. John’s and Florida.

“Those two games, it’s been hard to experiment,”
Gard said. “It’s not going to get any easier on Saturday. We’ve just got
to continue to rotate guys in and out in practice, have guys keep getting
better and keep working at it. But we’d obviously like to be deeper, and we
will be in time.

“Obviously with these two games right out of the gate,
you have a tendency to lean more on experience and guys that have been there. I
think we’ll have a lot of the same thing on Saturday night.”

Competition level, combined with a lack of experience off
the bench, has contributed to the high number of minutes for some players.
While most teams load up on easier nonconference opponents to begin the year,
the Badgers have not done so. Wisconsin, in fact, is one of just three teams in
the country to own a pair of victories against teams from the “Power 6”
conferences, joining UMass (wins over Boston College and LSU) and Baylor (over
South Carolina and Colorado) in that regard.

Four Wisconsin players are averaging at least 32 minutes per
game thus far — guard Ben Brust (36.0), forward Sam Dekker (35.0), guard Josh
Gasser (33.5) and guard Traevon Jackson (32.0).

Consider that only one other Big Ten team — Penn State —
has a rotation with three players averaging at least 30 minutes per game. Four
conference teams have two players that average 30 minutes per game, four have
one player that averages 30 minutes per game and two don’t have a single player
that eclipses the 30-minute mark.

“I think it’ll change a little bit,” Gasser said.
“It’s still really early in the year. Some of the freshmen, not that they
weren’t ready necessarily, but it’s a big stage for this early on. Coaches went
with some veteran guys early on in the year. As time goes on, some of the
younger players will get a little more experience, a little more confidence,
understanding what we’re looking for more.

“As the year goes on, you’ll kind of see people rise up
to the occasion and some who don’t. We’re always looking for guys who can
contribute. All 17 guys need to help, so it’ll come.”

The biggest problem for Wisconsin is a shortage of
experience beyond the team’s starters — although the only way to gain
experience is to play in games. The Badgers’ five starters of Jackson, Brust,
Gasser, Dekker and center Frank Kaminsky have combined to play 6,959 career
minutes. Backup point guard George Marshall has played 577 career minutes. No
other player on the active roster this season has played more than 80 minutes
at Wisconsin.

Even Marshall’s role with the team is up in the air. During
Wisconsin’s 59-53 victory against Florida, he played just three minutes and did
not appear in the second half. Instead, Badgers coach Bo Ryan kept Jackson in
the game despite him turning the ball over five times.

Gard said Marshall needed to demonstrate more consistency
and play slower to allow him to see more court time.

“I think we’ll be successful either way,” said
Jackson of the playing rotation. “We have depth. We can always go deep.
We’re not really in control of that. So we just have to be ready for whatever.
I think we have to take care of our bodies either way and prepare for
anything.”

Only one freshman — forward Nigel Hayes — has taken
advantage of an opportunity to play. Hayes is averaging 5.0 points per game in
13.0 minutes of action. Freshman forward Vitto Brown has not yet made an
appearance, and freshman point guard Bronson Koenig played one minute in the
season opener against St. John’s.

Gard said part of the challenge was getting the younger
players to understand concepts and play older than they really are. Wisconsin
will no doubt need that maturation as the grind of the college basketball
season continues.

“It’s hard to play 38, 39 minutes at the level we expect
guys to play,” Gard said. “It’s hard. I’m sure it can be done. But I
think you also get to a point of diminishing returns. We definitely would like
to be able to go a little deeper and spread some things out a little bit.”

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