Madison, WI – One of the concerns the Wisconsin basketball team will need to address this season is what players are going to step up to help preseason All-American center Ethan Happ now that former teammates Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have graduated and taken their games to the G-League.
Might those players be 6-5 wing Khalil Iverson, 6-0 point guard D’Mitrik Trice or 7-0 stretch four Andy van Vliet? The early answers after the Badgers’ first two games, both resounding victories, appear to be yes, yes and yes.
Iverson, Trice and Van Vliet all scored in double figures to augment the double-double of Happ on Sunday night as Wisconsin jumped out to a 28-14 lead half way through the first half of its match-up with Ivy League power Yale and never took its foot off the accelerator in beating the Bulldogs 89-61.
“Like with a lot of our better teams here, not being dependent on one or two people make you that much more difficult to guard,” said Wisconsin Coach Greg Gard in acknowledging his team’s multi-pronged scoring effort.
Iverson burst out of the gates scoring 13 of his 17 points in the first half in leading the Badgers to a 43-22 halftime lead. Powerfully built at 6-5 with a frame similar to former Oklahoma State star and current Boston Celtics wing Marcus Smart, Iverson scored in a variety of ways.
The Delaware, Ohio native got things going for himself with a pretty up-and-under move to score deep in the paint. He followed that up by attacking the offensive glass and scoring on two put back shots. Iverson then showcased his ability to play at a faster pace twice filling the lane on a Badgers’ fast breaks and scoring at the rim. Mixed in with those five field goals was a sixth basket Iverson scored on a thunderous one-handed dunk after selling a pass fake above the three-point arc to open a driving lane for himself.
“I was just going with flow,” said Iverson. “I got out in transition a couple of times and people found me.”
Yale could hardly be blamed if it failed to highlight Iverson on its pregame scouting report. That’s because the junior not only failed to score in Wisconsin’s 85-50 season-opening victory over South Carolina State on November 10, he also failed to get up a shot in 22 minutes of court time. Gard attributed Iverson’s slow start to the season with the Badgers lid-lifter coming on the same week of the three-year anniversary of the death of Iverson’s father. “I thought that weighed on him on Friday (against South Carolina State),” said Gard. “I thought today he was his old self. I know that is a very difficult time and I’m 20-plus years older than him.”
Trice ran the Wisconsin offense in an efficient manner all game and looked more for his own shot in the second half when he scored 11 of his 14 points. Within a two minute span in the second half, Trice scored on mid-range, pull-up jump shot to his right, a catch-and-shoot jumper from above the top of the arc and a lay-up after making a steal in the Yale front court and beating Yale defenders down court with his dribble.
Van Vliet, a native of Antwerp, Belgium, is left-hand dominant and built along the same lines as current Indian Pacer Domantas Sabonis. He knocked down two of five shots from behind the arc and made Yale pay when fouling him by converting a game-high five free throws to finish with 13 points. Against South Carolina State, Van Vliet connected on four of five shots from distance and projects as possibly the Badgers best long-distance shooting big since Jon Lauer, now playing for the Detroit Pistons.
How much of a run the Badgers make at the Big Ten championship still comes down primarily on the broad shoulders of Happ, a redshirt junior who has garnered numerous preseason, first-team All-American honors and whose picture graces the cover of more than one college basketball preview publications. Happ recorded his second double-double in two games against Yale by scoring 12 points and collecting a game-high 11 rebounds.
Happ most definitely was atop of the Yale pre-game scouting board as the Bulldogs opened the game by running a second defender at him upon receiving the ball in the low and mid-posts areas. Although only credited with one assist, Happ was quick to either find an open teammate or attack the double team off the bounce in response to the game-long double teams. He put his ballhandling and footwork on display late in the first half when starting on the left block, he spun over his right shoulder, beat his defender along the baseline and finished on the other side of the rim through contact for a three-point scoring opportunity to increase Wisconsin’s lead to 33-18.
Happ misfired on the ensuring free throw, and that continues to be a bug-a-boo for him through the first two games. After converting on 50 percent of his free throw attempts last season, Happ has made only eight of 17 attempts through the first two games this season. Happ was spotted on the Kohl Center court two hours before game time on Sunday working on this free throw shooting form in the hopes of ironing out a delivery that has featured a hitch in the past.
While not featured on any list of non-conference marque games, the Yale-Wisconsin match-up featured two of the top three teams in the Ivy League and Big Ten, respectively, in the past decade. After opening its season dropping a 92-76 decision at Creighton, Yale Coach James Jones said he knew what he was getting into scheduling the Badgers in the Kohl Center, a venue the Badgers have posted an .870 winning percentage in since it opened in 1998. That ranks sixth in the country in highest home winning percentage since 1998.
“This is my first time playing here, but I’ve seen many games from here on television and it’s as difficult to play in this building as it looks for teams playing on TV,” said Jones. “Wisconsin is going to do what they do and we couldn’t stop them.” Jones realized there were risks double teaming Happ. “We were trying to double Happ to get the ball out of his hands, but that led to opportunities for other guys. Anytime your’re facing a Big Ten team you’re going to have a number of players on that team who can score.”
Yale anticipated the return this season of Makai Mason, a 6-1 do-everything guard who missed all of the 2016-17 season with a foot injury. Tabbed by at least one preseason publication as the Ivy League player of the year, the injured Mason sat out the Bulldogs first game against Creighton and then again this one against Wisconsin. Clearly Mason’s absence, along with that of injured teammate Jordan Bruner, was a setback to the upset hopes of Yale.
“We start the season off on the road in these two environments (Creighton and Wisconsin) and if we’re 100 percent healthy and playing our best, it’s going to be difficult,” said Jones. “But that’s what we signed up for. No one is feeling sorry for us.”
As to be expected starting the season with two straight wins with an average margin of victory north of 30 points, Gard was complimentary of his players. “I’m really proud of how they handled the last 24 hours and the quick turnaround (from the South Carolina State to Yale games),” he said. “I though they listened and worked to make sure we had the success we had. We shared the ball, moved the ball and played inside to out.”
Gard realizes his team’s quality of opponent ratchets up in the immediate future. Next up for the Badgers on November 16th is Xavier, an NCAA Elite Eight qualifier from last year and a team predicted by most preseason prognosticators to finish in the top two of the Big East this season. “We take another step or two or three up (in quality of opposition) on Thursday,” said Gard, in reference to the Musketeers. With future non-conference foes like Baylor, Creighton or UCLA, Virginia and Marquette still on the docket, Gard figures he’ll have a good read on his team by the end of the calendar year. “By the time we get to 2018, we’ll have a pretty good idea of where we are and where we’ll need to grow.”
Yale returns to its Connecticut campus to open its home schedule on November 14th against South Carolina State.
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