MADISON, Wis. — If you’ve seen a Wisconsin basketball game this season on television or in person, chances are you’ve seen who the first player is to bound off the bench and offer high fives for teammates during timeouts.
He is not a regular rotation player and he rarely plays as a fifth-year senior. But that hasn’t deterred Zach Bohannon from trying to set an example of the way a teammate should act. Be into the game. Offer encouragement. Contribute in any way you can — even if it only comes via high fives in games and scout-team performances in practice.
"I told myself it’s not about me," Bohannon said. "It’s about the team. And it’s about how I can help the team get better."
On Wednesday, the team and the rest of Wisconsin’s fans will have an opportunity to thank Bohannon for his three-year contributions to the program. Bohannon, along with center Evan Anderson and guard Ben Brust, will be honored as part of senior night festivities when No. 9 Wisconsin (24-5, 11-5 Big Ten) plays host to Purdue (15-14, 5-11) at 8 p.m.
Bohannon’s college basketball journey certainly is unique. He began his career at the Air Force Academy and, over two seasons, appeared in 39 games with one start. But he didn’t play as much as he thought he should, averaging 11.1 minutes, which only compounded his frustrations with the daily rigors of enrolling at Air Force in the first place.
When he began exploring transfer options, Bohannon’s top choice became a place he’d initially wanted no part of. Wisconsin had been the program at which Zach’s older brother, Jason, once thrived. Jason Bohannon played from 2007-10 and left the program ranked fourth in made 3-pointers (212), fourth in total games played (135) and third in free-throw percentage (.848)
Zach Bohannon was tired of following in his brother’s footsteps on the basketball court and turned down a preferred walk-on spot at Wisconsin out of Linn-Mar (Iowa) High School. But as Zach evaluated his transfer choices, he realized Wisconsin would provide an opportunity to compete with players at the highest level of college basketball. Meanwhile, he’d also be able to pursue a Master of Business Administration degree — which he intends to complete next year.
With some encouragement from Jason, Zach ultimately decided to become a Badgers player, too.
"When I got to the Air Force Academy, it was like why was I trying to run away from my older brother and the name that he gave me?" Bohannon said. "He pushed me to become a better person and a better basketball player to begin with. I’m like, maybe it was kind of selfish to kind of run away from that name and try to run away from Jason’s legacy that he created. Because ultimately I realized I became the person that I became, the basketball player that I became. So that was the reason I came back to Wisconsin."
The younger Bohannon’s Wisconsin career has not gone as he might have envisioned. This season, he has appeared in 10 games and played a total of 21 minutes with 10 points and five rebounds. The development of freshman Nigel Hayes took most of the backup minutes at forward this season, with redshirt junior Duje Dukan filling the remaining time off the bench.
Those numbers for Bohannon are down slightly from his redshirt junior season a year ago, when he appeared in 17 games for a total of 80 minutes with 17 points and 23 rebounds. But Bohannon acknowledges his experience at Air Force, when he spent too much time worrying about playing time, prepared him for Wisconsin and helped to change his mindset.
"This wasn’t my first time that I’ve been through a situation like this," Bohannon said. "I told myself after the last time I went through it at Air Force; I told myself I’m going to be the best leader that I can be to help the team win. That’s kind of the role that I’ve tried to do my best in this year. Even when I wasn’t playing, just being that positive influence."
Bohannon said he was especially vocal earlier this season when Wisconsin endured a string of five losses over six Big Ten games. He reminded teammates that during Jason’s junior season in 2008-09, the Badgers lost six consecutive Big Ten games and still finished in the top four of the conference and reached the NCAA tournament.
Badgers assistant coach Greg Gard noted that the contributions Bohannon and Anderson had made on the scout team over their careers had not gone unnoticed.
"That’s harder to do than being a regular guy in the rotation," Gard said. "To come in every day, know that you’re going to play on the scout team, it’s all in the mindset of how you approach it. . . . Without those guys, we can’t prepare"
Bohannon is in the process of trying to secure an investment banking internship on Wall Street in New York City after the school year. And he intends to take the lessons he has learned over his basketball career into the workforce. There will be days in which things don’t bounce your way, he says. But the real challenge is finding ways to stay positive anyway because there are more good days ahead.
"Obviously, he’s not getting the minutes that everybody wants to get," Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. "But that shows you the type of man that he is. He’s getting ready for a lot of other things for the next 60 years that are pretty important in his life, and we’re certainly glad he did it with us as far as finishing his education and his basketball. He’s pretty special."