Since the Wisconsin Badgers decided to remove the redshirt of big man Nate Reuvers, all the semi-cliché explanations have been going around. While most, if not all, do hold merit, the decision to play Reuvers this year was as much symbolic as it was strategic.
ESPN’s Dan Dakich (and arch-nemesis of our beloved Frank Kaminsky) was all over those clichés during the Badgers’ win against Penn State. Dakich was certainly correct in what he said. During the broadcast, the ESPN analyst hit all the typical notes: Reuvers will be a better player in what-would-have-been his redshirt senior year than he will be this year (assuming health). And a redshirt year would be great for the big man’s physical development.
However, Dakich stopped after all the usual talking points. (As he should; there was a game going on involving dozens of other players, after all.)
[Note to self: Let’s try and not make pointing out the things Dan Dakich is right about a habit in this space, insofar as to not irritate our beloved Frank Kaminsky.]
Of course, Greg Gard has been on the recruiting circuit for years now. But with the nontraditional exit of Bo Ryan, and the fact that recruiting starts well before a prospect’s senior year of high school (at least in most cases), there wasn’t a clear distinction between where the Ryan-era recruiting ended and the Gard-era recruiting started. Nevertheless, the freshmen class of this year is unmistakably Gard’s.
Wisconsin basketball has a rich history of versatile frontcourt players who really are the foundation of the Badgers’ system. As it pertains to Reuvers, it’s imperative that the program find out if he’s next in line.
If you want to read into it more, removing Reuvers’ redshirt was something of a stunning admission on the part of the program. An admission that it needs more help, specifically where Reuvers offers it. And the proof is in the proverbial pudding: Reuvers has looked more confident with almost every game. Though with young players, performance is often a take-two-steps-forward-then-one-step-back proposition. Especially in this case, since the decision to play was made so late.
Nate Reuvers: "(Coaches) thought that in an ideal world it would be good for me to redshirt, but they thought that I could help contribute to this team this year. I thought that I'm ready to play and step into a role. So that's why I'm playing." #Badgers— Jesse Temple (@jessetemple) November 25, 2017
For all frustrating narratives that cling to Wisconsin basketball (the “slow play,” etc.), the Badgers have really been ahead of the curve when it comes to smooth-shooting bigs. This season, Bucky really needs to find help in that area outside of Ethan Happ.
Sure, there’s an obvious point to all the better-later-than-now chatter. But there’s also a responsibility to the players currently on the roster; a responsibility to put them in a position to win. Reuvers undoubtedly helps. Perhaps more than the coaching staff was prepared for, both in terms of the freshman’s readiness, and the lackluster performance(s) elsewhere thus far.
Plus, now that the Badgers have been hit by the injury bug, playing Reuvers as a freshman looks especially prudent.
Even though there are still players from Ryan’s tenure still on the roster, there’s no more getting by on his reputation. We’ve crossed that bridge. Maybe (probably?) it’s unfair to Reuvers to put him in the situation he’s in if he wanted—or was willing—to redshirt. But playing him now might have a lasting, long-term effect on the trajectory of the program as a whole.
Or, perhaps a better way to look at it: Playing this season without him could have had a negative effect on the team’s performance. It’s not hard to envision a season where all the Badger faithful were looking around at the season’s end thinking Bucky was one rotation player short, right? Even if Wisconsin isn’t competing for a national championship this season, staying competitive is the top priority. Every season, college sports remind us that if a program slips too far, the climb back up can be harder than anybody realized.
It’s not really something that happens very often, but it was really a remarkable team-first, unselfish move on Reuvers’ part to play this season. He deserves a ton of credit for that. He’s more important to the health of the program going forward than his on-court performance will reflect this season. And that couldn’t be made up for four years from now.