MADISON, Wis. — The more George Marshall wanted to please Wisconsin’s coaches early this season, the less he actually played in a manner that drew their approval. It was a catch-22 for Marshall, the Badgers’ talented point guard, and he wasn’t sure how to escape its clutches.
Marshall, a redshirt freshman, had been pegged as a player to watch dating to his days on Wisconsin’s scout team a year ago. He possessed explosiveness to the rim, a quick pull up jumper and pestered opponents attempting to bring the ball up court. So when starting point guard Josh Gasser tore his ACL on Oct. 27, many presumed the Badgers were Marshall’s team to run until Gasser’s return.
But through his first six starts, Marshall tallied nine assists and seven turnovers — not exactly a recipe for success at Wisconsin, where the previous point guard, Jordan Taylor, set the all-time NCAA career record for assists-to-turnovers ratio (3.01).
The next game, Marshall’s starting spot was gone, granted instead to Traevon Jackson.
“At the beginning of the year, I kind of didn’t want to do too much or make a turnover here and there,” Marshall said Saturday night following Wisconsin’s 70-66 loss at Iowa. “But even though that’s what I didn’t want to do, me playing aggressive is what I should have done.”
During Saturday’s game, Marshall offered a glimpse of his immense potential with a performance that could turn around his season. He scored a career-high 20 points in just 15 minutes of action off the bench, making 7 of 10 field goal attempts and 3 of 4 3-pointers. Marshall scored every point during the second half to fuel Wisconsin’s comeback attempt from a 16-point halftime deficit.
“Hopefully he can build off this a little bit and get his confidence going and know what he’s capable of,” Badgers center Jared Berggren said. “Sometimes that’s all it takes is just get a taste of it and see what you can do in a game situation like this in a hostile environment. To come in and knock down some big shots and make some big plays down the stretch was definitely encouraging.”
Despite the loss, Marshall appeared to gain back the swagger that had been missing through most of the first 17 games of the season, when he averaged 4.9 points. During Wisconsin’s 64-59 upset victory of No. 2 Indiana last Tuesday, for example, he was held scoreless for the second time this season.
“I think (Saturday night), it’ll jumpstart me for the rest of the season as far as how I’m going to play,” he said. “So from here on out, I just plan to keep playing aggressive.”
Marshall missed Monday’s practice with an illness, according to Badgers coach Bo Ryan. His status for Tuesday’s game against No. 13 Michigan State (16-3, 5-1 in Big Ten play) at the Kohl Center is questionable, but Wisconsin (13-5, 4-1) certainly could use his presence.
“Hopefully, he’ll get better,” said Ryan, who has been under the weather himself for a few weeks. “I certainly wouldn’t wish whatever I have on everybody. I have no idea how something can hang and make a person feel this way for so long, and it’s like thank goodness I don’t have to guard and I don’t have to score. It doesn’t sound like (he has) what yours truly has.”
If Marshall is able to play, it will take pressure off Jackson, who shot just 1 of 10 from the field and scored three points against Iowa. This season, Marshall is averaging 18.9 minutes per game and has tallied 16 assists to just five turnovers since moving out of the starting lineup.
Badgers assistant coach Greg Gard admitted the learning curve for young players varies based on the individual, but most are prone to peaks and valleys. So in that regard, Marshall is no different from other freshmen in Wisconsin’s system over the years.
“A lot of times guys with less experience are a 100-watt bulb one day and a 40-watt bulb the next,” Gard said. “So it’s trying to be as bright as possible all the time and being consistent.”
Marshall was prone to offensive bursts while playing on Wisconsin’s scout team a season ago. But the contrast between scout team success and delivering in the spotlight is significantly different because the Badgers’ reserves compete in practice with little or no leash.
Now that the leash is on and Marshall knows what is expected, coaches hope he can maintain the level of aggressiveness he demonstrated Saturday against Iowa.
“He gives us a little juice with the ball and the ability to make plays and get in gaps,” Gard said. “That tape will get out, and, ‘OK, here’s how we’re going to play Marshall.’
“Can he make those plays when he’s circled with a brighter highlighter on a scouting report? Or can he get in and make plays for his teammates, too? That’ll be the next phase.”