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Previewing Wisconsin’s bigs entering the 2018–19 season

Led by All-American Ethan Happ, Wisconsin’s post players look to improve defensively and on the glass this season.

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NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan State vs Wisconsin Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball program has a long, storied history of great post play. From Mike Wilkinson, Brian Butch, and Jon Leuer to more recent All-Big Ten centers Jared Berggren and Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin’s patented swing offense relies heavily on versatile post players.

The 2018–19 Wisconsin team will be no different, as preseason All-American Ethan Happ returns and will be the focal point of Greg Gard’s offense. The Badgers also return two seniors looking for bounce-back seasons in Charles Thomas and Alex Illikainen, as well as talented sophomore Nate Reuvers. Aleem Ford would pair with Reuvers, but he was ruled out indefinitely this week after undergoing knee surgery on Wednesday.

The Badgers will need more improved and consistent play from their post players not named Happ if they want to make the NCAA tournament after a disappointing season last year.

Bucky’s 5th Podcast, Ep. 41: Basketball season preview. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and TuneIn.

Returning Players: Ethan Happ (RS Sr.); Charles Thomas (Sr.); Alex Illikainen (Sr.); Aleem Ford (RS So.); Nate Reuvers (So.);

Departed Players: Aaron Moesch (Graduation); Andy Van Vliet (Transfer)

Incoming Players: Taylor Currie (Fr.); Joe Hedstrom (Fr.); Owen Hamilton (So., Transfer)

Statistical Leaders: Happ (17.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.7 apg), Ford (5.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 40.9 3P%), Reuvers (5.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 0.9 bpg), Thomas (1.2 ppg, 1.6 rpg)

The Big Names

The Badgers’ fortunes this season got a huge boost when Happ announced his intention to return to Madison for his senior year. A do-it-all, 6’10’ forward, Happ has started every game he’s played at Wisconsin and has been a first-team All-Big Ten selection the past two seasons. Gard’s offense will once again run through Happ, one of the best post scorers in the country, and his arsenal of crafty post moves and excellent passing vision should open up plenty of shots for his teammates.

The key to Happ becoming a National Player of the Year candidate is his shooting. He is a career 56 percent free-throw shooter and has attempted only 11 three-pointers in his career. It’s unrealistic to expect Happ to turn into a great shooter, but if he can at least be an average shooting threat from outside the paint and improve his free-throw shooting to a respectable number (60–70 percent) he has a very real shot at not only becoming a first-team All-American but a future NBA player.

Ideally, the Badgers would like to pair Happ with a forward who can space the floor and create driving lanes for their ball handlers. Sophomore Reuvers is likely to be the opening-night starter next to Happ and will be relied upon heavily to knock down jump shots. A consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school, Reuvers burned his redshirt last December and saw action in 28 games as a true freshman. Although over-matched physically at times, Reuvers flashed tons of potential and displayed a clean shooting stroke with range out to the three-point line. At 6’11, he has good length, runs the floor well, and reportedly added 25 pounds to his frame in the offseason. All signs point to Reuvers having a breakout season and becoming a reliable outside scoring option next to Happ’s expected dominance in the paint.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Northwestern Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Badgers’ frontcourt depth took a big hit on Wednesday with the news that Ford will be out indefinitely with a knee injury. He “is expected to return” to the team at some point later in the season, but his absence is a huge loss. Ford was statistically Wisconsin’s best three-point shooter a season ago, finishing at 40.9 percent from deep on 110 attempts. His shooting and versatility will be missed, as Ford has the ability to play both forward positions and gives Gard plenty of lineup options when healthy. Ford was expected to play big minutes and possibly start next to Happ before the injury, so this is a significant loss to Wisconsin’s suddenly thin frontcourt.

Losing Ford means Gard may utilize more three-guard lineups, and 6’5 wing Khalil Iverson may be forced to play some small-ball power forward if Happ or Reuvers get into foul trouble. Seniors Thomas and Illikainen will also be in the mix to see minutes, and keep an eye out for incoming freshman Taylor Currie, who could be forced into action much like Reuvers a year ago.

Potential X-Factors

Ford’s injury throws a wrench into Gard’s frontcourt rotation, asThomas and Illikainen will suddenly need to be relied upon off the bench. It’s been an inconsistent and frustrating three years for both of them, but with Ford’s injury they suddenly have the opportunity to be contributors to the 2018-19 campaign. Illikainen is the better shooter of the two but struggles to defend skilled post players and rebound, something the Badgers will desperately need if Happ is off the floor. Thomas is better on the glass and a more physical player than Illikainen, but slightly less skilled offensively. If either can provide solid minutes off the bench without being a liability defensively, it would do wonders for Wisconsin. The Badgers finished dead-last in the Big Ten in rebounding last season, and this team desperately needs a physical, aggressive presence off the bench. Thomas or Illikainen could be the answer.

Why This Position Group Matters

This team very clearly revolves around Happ. He is arguably the best player in the Big Ten and one of the best all-around players to ever don a Wisconsin uniform. I am very excited to see if his shooting stroke has improved at all and just how dominant he can be with a backcourt that is more experienced.

Reuvers is also a very exciting player to watch. He came to Madison as a highly regarded high school prospect and will play big minutes while Ford is out. Wisconsin has a long, successful track record of developing bigs, and Reuvers has all the tools to turn into an All-Big Ten-level forward in his final three years on campus.

The complementary frontcourt players to Happ will need to improve defensively and on the glass for the Badgers to have a realistic shot at returning to the NCAA tournament.