MADISON, Wis. — Question marks abound this time of year for college basketball programs across the country because October intra-squad practices can only reveal so much. That’s why No. 21 Wisconsin’s 80-51 exhibition victory against UW-Platteville, though it won’t officially count for anything, was so important Wednesday night at the Kohl Center — it signified a step toward putting the pieces in place on a season containing much uncertainty.
Some of what we learned were not new developments, of course. The team’s two returning leading scorers, Ben Brust and Sam Dekker, contributed 20 and 13 points, respectively, to lead the team. The starting lineup, as most surmised, featured a three-guard rotation of Traevon Jackson, Brust, Josh Gasser, Dekker and Frank Kaminsky.
Beyond that, however, was plenty of change.
To begin with, the first four substitutions off the bench were forward Duje Dukan, guard George Marshall, forward Nigel Hayes and guard Bronson Koenig. Two of those players were high school seniors a year ago (Hayes and Koenig) and one (Dukan) sat out while taking a redshirt season. All four played double-digit minutes against Platteville.
Hayes in particular offered a glimpse of the player he is capable of becoming. The 6-foot-7, 250-pounder from Toledo, Ohio, led the team in rebounds (six) despite playing only 14 minutes. Five of his six rebounds were on the offensive glass.
“You look at the stats and say, ‘Wow,'” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “For that number of minutes to get that number of rebounds, I don’t care if you’re playing a team of three 7 footers or a team of 6-5 to 6-8 guys. He positioned himself well. He’s strong. He finished.
“A couple times early he was just a little tight. And that’s what happens sometimes for a guy that’s used to starting in high school and playing right away and coming in off the bench. Something you have to learn. He showed that he’s here for a reason. He’s not going away any time soon.”
Hayes was thought to be the freshman most ready to contribute immediately, and he did not disappoint on Wednesday. In addition to his six boards, he also scored eight points after a couple of early misses.
“I would say the comfort level wasn’t a problem,” Hayes said. “But being a freshman and being out there for the first time in front of all the fans, being out there in a game, it was a little uncomfortable, nervousness in me, which is the reason why I missed that early layup. I settled down, got more comfortable and just realized I’m still playing basketball. I just went from 5,000 fans to maybe 14, 15,000. So it’s the same game, just got to get out there, be comfortable and have fun.”
Perhaps one of the most pleasant developments was the continued progress of Gasser, who missed last season after suffering a torn ACL last October. On Wednesday, Gasser played in his first college game in 19 months.
He finished with seven points on 2 of 5 shooting, three assists and two rebounds in 25 minutes.
“He looked fine,” Ryan said. “He didn’t shy away from anything. He can shoot it better than that. But I think that’ll come. He hasn’t been under the lights too much for long periods of time. Even the minutes that he got up in Canada, it’s not the same. So we just hope now and our scrimmage on Saturday he’ll look even better and just keep progressing.”
Ryan made it known his playing rotation was far from set. During the first half alone, he shuffled through 12 players, tossing in freshmen Vitto Brown and Jordan Hill. Both players are candidates to see time, though Hill may be hard-pressed to squeeze into a rotation that already features five guards.
“I’m still trying to find out who’s ready to grab the minutes,” Ryan said. “Every coach is at this time. You’ll see a lot of this in these exhibition games, kind of streaks or runs and subbing and patterns. In the second half, I thought we settled into a pretty good groove and looked better playing off one another.”
UW-Platteville trailed just 37-30 at halftime and trimmed the deficit to 46-40 on a three-point play from Wes Nemitz in the second half. But Wisconsin pushed on a 14-2 run that began with consecutive Hayes layups to put the game away with 10 minutes remaining in the game.
Wisconsin will be required to play at a far higher level during its regular season opener Nov. 8 against St. John’s in Sioux Falls, S.D. But the Badgers, who were picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten earlier this week by a group of conference writers, impressed at least one person in the building.
“Boy, these guys are going to be pretty good,” Platteville coach Jeff Gard said. “When you’ve got the best coach, or one of the best coaches in the country leading these guys, if they’re students of the game and they take the approach that we’re taking, just keep on getting better every day, this program is going to be really, really good.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.