MADISON -- The Wisconsin Badgers are off to another great start this season, winning 11 of their first 12 games. The Badgers returned four of their five starters from last season and Nigel Hayes has filled in wonderfully as the fifth starter.
Having last year's Sixth Man of the Year in the Big Ten jump into the starting lineup meant another player would have to step up and relieve both Hayes and preseason All-American Frank Kaminsky. With senior Duje Dukan still most comfortable on the perimeter, that player has been Vitto Brown.
The 6'8 sophomore from Bowling Green, Ohio, has come onto the scene this season as arguably UW's biggest surprise. As a freshman, Brown scored a total of six points in the 14 games he appeared in, accumulating a total of 44 minutes over the season.
This year, Brown has been the go-to post player off the bench, averaging over 10 minutes per game. He recorded career highs in rebounds (nine) and minutes (20) against Chattanooga, and scored a career-high 10 points against Nicholls State.
"[I am] just trying to have higher energy, a higher motor," Brown said. "I played a little last year, so I kind of knew what to expect. Even practice this year has been more competitive, so all of those aspects brought together have really helped me."
Playing in every game except against Marquette, Brown has shown an improved ability to put the ball in the basket, leading to an increase in playing time. According to Hoop-math.com, over half of the shots Brown has attempted have been two-point jumpers, yet he is shooting the highest percentage on the team (60 percent) on those looks.
Brown's improvement on the court has been something that even his teammates have noticed. Fifth-year senior Josh Gasser isn't surprised by the uptick in Brown's production.
"I'm really happy for him, because he put the work in," Gasser said. "If he didn't put the work in, I wouldn't expect it, but he's someone who works so hard in the offseason and got rewarded for it."
The forward has been able to find success using his 237-pound body to rebound the ball and occasionally score in bunches for the Badgers. He believes it is due to the fact that there is a lot of film on Hayes and Kaminsky, but not a lot on him because of his lack of playing time last season.
"Having me is kind of like a different aspect that we bring to the game," Brown said. "[Opponents] aren't really sure what to do. I think being able to get some more rebounds and play defense helps us out, too."
After putting in a lot of gym time during the offseason, the boost in minutes and scoring aptitude has lifted Brown's confidence. He said that a number of things have helped him to settle in this season.
"It's a little bit of everything," Brown said. "Knowing were to be, moving and not overthinking too much. [You] just have to go out there and be yourself. Nigel did a good job finding that out early and obviously Frank has found that out over his years here, so I just need to commit to that."
While Brown talked more about his play on the court, Gasser thought the transformation was due to his work in the weight room.
"I think he's worked a lot on his body and getting stronger and more explosive," said Gasser. "He's always been that way, I just think he was just a little raw last year and he's kind of coming into his own more this year."
With Dukan playing more of a role as a wing player despite his 6'10 frame, Brown has been able to relieve UW's players in the frontcourt in a more traditional role. Brown's contributions are viewed as a big addition to a team that was looking for a big man to eat minutes off the bench, especially after Ethan Happ's decision to redshirt.
"We need a guy who can come in off the bench and do some little things for us," Gasser said. "Grab some rebounds, set some screens and finish around the basket. That's exactly what Vitto can do."
As the Badgers head into Big Ten play after their last non-conference game against Buffalo on Sunday, Kaminsky and Hayes will see more formidable foes in the post. That means they may be more likely to find themselves in foul trouble and need additional breaks. If and when that happens, Bo Ryan will look to Brown to play valuable minutes off the bench.
That doesn't mean he needs to try to do too much, however.
"He doesn't have to come out there and be a world beater or anything," Gasser said. "He just has to come out there and do the little things, be a spark of the bench, and be an energizer."