Writing a preview piece about four players who have totaled only 258 combined minutes is made even tougher when those minutes have all been logged by the same player. But I could not be more excited for this group. Though completely unproven on the court, these guys will become the foundation of the program over the next few seasons.
Let us indulge in some comparisons between this year's frontcourt and Badgers from the past. Vitto Brown and Keaton Nankivil share the same size, length, and affinity for jumpers offensively. Ethan Happ likes to reverse his layups like ol' Mark Vershaw. Charlie Thomas brings the raw physicality that Vershaw's running mate Andy Kowske had. And I've already gone on record saying Alex Illikainen has some Mike Wilkinson in him. Imagine having all of those old-timers on the same team. I don't want to jinx the current crop, but there will be a lot of potential wearing the cardinal and white this season.
Starter: Ethan Happ, 6-9, RS-Fr.
The Ethan Happ era cannot afford any more hype. His time is here, starting Friday against Western Illinois, a school located just over an hour from his high school. His year of apprenticeship served him well, as he learned subtle tricks of the trade from his elders as a redshirt and took advantage of the weight room to get his body ready for the rigors of a full season. Not only that, but he was able to work extensively on a jump shot that was not pretty.
Perfecting his shooting range out to three-point land is going to take some time, though. Happ is most comfortable around the rim, where he employs a variety of up-and-under counter moves, not unlike Frank Kaminsky. He also has excellent hands. Defensively, Happ's length and footwork puts him in line for heavy minutes. Bo Ryan cannot stop raving about how many deflections Happ causes in practice. Happ also prides himself on his rebounding, which he knows he must provide the Badgers consistently.
Key number: 150 - The 247Sports Composite ranking for Happ coming out of the high school.
Twelve of the top 13 recruits in the 2014 class are already in the NBA, but Happ is likely to make a bigger impact on the college game than almost all of them. He looks like the quintessential four-year (or in this case five-year) Badger stud. Though it's been almost 19 months since he last played in a game that counted for anything, he made the most of that opportunity. Happ was named MVP of the Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Germany in April of 2014, averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds for the U18 Team USA. Let's face it: Bo and Co. did it again.
Happ has a good motor and already acts like a veteran in some ways. He will fit in nicely as the third member of UW's "Big Three" this year.
Starter: Vitto Brown, 6-8, Jr.
Brown, a young man with a smooth voice and matching personality, hasn't looked quite as smooth on the court to date. He's no Evan Anderson, but he did struggle with fouls as he increased his playing time last year. As one of the elder statesman on the team these days, the hope is that the presence of some hungry, younger players around him will spur Brown to put all the pieces together.
Yet you have to give him credit, his mid-range jumper drops through the net pretty gracefully. Even so, as his poor offensive efficiency numbers can attest, Brown could use a few more friendly bounces around the rim. That will require more shots at the rim. He might play more of a power forward role offensively to open up the middle for Happ and then flip-flop assignments defensively (though the positions are fairly interchangeable). Either way, Brown has to know he doesn't need to lead this team in scoring. If he sticks to what he's good at -- rebounding -- he'll be an asset.
Key number: 21.3 - Brown's turnover rate last season, the highest among UW players who earned meaningful minutes
Unlike some of the most successful Wisconsin big men of late -- Kaminsky and Jon Leuer come to mind -- Brown was not late-blooming former guard that suddenly grew eight inches yet magically retained his dexterity. The herky-jerky nature of his game is slowly wearing off, but it has lead to an unusually high number of turnovers for a big man. Making smart decisions is the best way for Brown to retain his starting spot.
Reserve: Charlie Thomas, 6-8, Fr.
Thomas was close to automatic around the hoop against UW-River Falls once he got his hands on the ball. The Maryland native made 5-of-7 shots in his first game action and pulled down seven rebounds. This summer Thomas was the pleasant surprise of early practices. He arrived physically ready, the heaviest member of the roster at a very solid 253 pounds. A stout frame like Thomas' will be needed on a roster that isn't guaranteed to have anyone over 6-9 on it. He's a good athlete who should continue to develop into a reliable shooter outside the paint as well. Hopefully one day, sooner than later, Thomas will make Wisconsin fans forget about another freshmen who wound up in College Park.
Reserve: Alex Illikainen, 6-9, Fr.
Another freshman who impressed in the exhibition was Illikainen, who matched Thomas' stat line and added two assists. Up until that game and the questions surrounding Andy Van Vliet's eligibility, many had assumed Illikainen would consider redshirting. Perhaps the tide has turned, however. Illikainen prepped at Brewster Academy his senior year after a record-setting tenure in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, so he's already gone through the experience of integrating into an elite squad instead of being "the man" on his team. Wisconsin works wonders with willing role players like Illikainen.
It's tough to say what Illikainen and the staff would do if Van Vliet was declared eligible. Van Vliet brings more height and an intriguing skill set, which would squeeze the minutes of the other freshmen. For now, though, expect Illikainen to play.
Eligibility pending: Andy Van Vliet, 6-11, Fr.
What announcers (and your mom) will still be talking about: how Happ practiced against Kaminsky every day last year; Vitto's buttery baritone voice
What we should be talking about: conspiracy theories about why the NCAA hates Belgians -- #FreeAVV. In addition, a five-man recruiting class is a rarity under Bo Ryan, yet we've now seen two in three cycles. Not to mention three big men in one class is a throwback to Dick Bennett's recruiting class that eventually delivered him a Final Four.