Badgers' schedule hasn't allowed reserves much court time
The Badgers have started the season with a rotation that relies on their starting five and not much else.
By JESSE TEMPLEFS Wisconsin
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."