With Jackson out, backup Showalter looks to make most of more minutes
MADISON, Wis. — Zak Showalter approached preseason practices in October with the same zest and energy he always had for Wisconsin’s basketball team. Except this year, there seemed to be a tangible carrot dangling in front of the redshirt sophomore — the opportunity for playing time as the fourth guard in Badgers coach Bo Ryan’s rotation.
When Showalter edged Jordan Hill for that spot, the only question was how much he would be used in game situations. And after he played 11 minutes apiece in the team’s first two games, it appeared he had finally found his place.
But then the fourth guard in the rotation disappeared almost entirely. He did not play at all in consecutive games against Duke and Marquette, when Ryan shortened his rotation down to eight players. He also did not play against Buffalo and then Purdue. And he began to wonder how a fourth guard could be cut out of the lineup.
"It sounds kind of weird," Showalter said. "I guess Coach kind of has his same system. He goes down to eight guys when in the crunch minutes. He just likes to have guys he can rely on."
In the span of one unfortunate play, however, Showalter has again vaulted into the playing rotation as a man Ryan must rely on to serve as a stopgap during starters’ rest periods. Starting point guard Traevon Jackson suffered a broken right foot during Wisconsin’s game at Rutgers 10 days ago, which changed the rotation and moved Showalter into the eighth and final spot. With Bronson Koenig taking over as the starter, Showalter is now the only guard used off the bench.
"I take all the minutes I can," Showalter said. "I love getting as many minutes as I can get, so it’s a great opportunity for me, so I’m going to take advantage of it. Obviously it’s not the ideal situation with Trae. That’s not what you want. But I’m excited. It’s been a good couple weeks. It feels better to be able to contribute to wins."
How has Showalter responded to his new role? He played a season-high 18 minutes Tuesday night during Wisconsin’s 82-50 victory against Iowa at the Kohl Center, and he did the things well that have made him a fan favorite. He scored five points with three rebounds, two assists, a steal and no turnovers.
What separates Showalter from other players Ryan has at his disposal is a combination of grit, hustle and athleticism. Showalter is not a particularly lethal long-range shooter — he made his first 3-pointer of the season against Iowa — but he does not demand the ball. Instead, he is willing to pester opponents defensively and crash the glass for offensive rebounding opportunities.
Ryan’s expectations of Showalter in this role are simple.
"Just what he’s been giving us," Ryan said. "Work hard, take care of the ball, play defense, hit the glass, take charges, energy guy. And don’t get cheated. I don’t think Zak gets cheated very much. You’ve heard me use that expression. It just means guys are trying to do something on every possession. Always active, but not trying to do so much where they get out of position. Zak has brought us a lot of energy."
During Monday’s practice, Showalter tallied a putback layup off a Nigel Hayes miss, which prompted Ryan to chastise his frontcourt players for not showing the same level of hustle and determination rebounding as Showalter. He routinely beats his defender and skies high for putback opportunities. He recorded a putback dunk against UAB during Wisconsin’s November trip to the Bahamas that made SportsCenter’s top 10 highlights.
Still, Showalter recognizes the importance of understanding his role and not trying to create a highlight-reel play every trip down the court.
"I think the most important part is just letting the game come to you when you first get in there and not right away start trying to make something happen with the ball, not try to do something because you’ve got to get warmed up," Showalter said. "Just letting the game come to me and then just making plays. Being assertive because I don’t have that much time to let the game come to me because I know my time is pretty limited being in that eighth spot. You’ve got to play how you play, and everything works out."
Two years ago, Showalter appeared in 22 games as a true freshman and averaged 1.7 points and 1.0 rebounds. He took a redshirt season last year when he would have been buried on the bench thanks to Koenig’s arrival. Showalter described his freshman season as "eye opening" and noted he had come to better understand the college game, as well as Ryan’s expectations of him. This season, he is averaging 2.7 points and 1.3 rebounds in 7.3 minutes per game.
Showalter’s minutes figure to increase while Jackson is sidelined for up to six weeks. And whatever frustrations that tugged at him have subsided because he’s playing an important role on a team with national championship aspirations.
"Zak’s a great teammate, and he’s going to do his role and do it well," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "He’s going to come in and bring energy and play hard. He knows what he’s supposed to do out there. I think he’s done a good job of it. I think his minutes are going to keep going up just because we like the things he’s done, and Coach likes his attitude. He’s one of those guys that’s not afraid to step in when you need him. That’s what you need."
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