The Wisconsin Badgers are set to kick off their 2023-2024 season with a home matchup against the Arkansas State Red Wolves on Monday, which prefaces a tough contest against the No. 9 Tennessee Volunters on Friday at the Kohl Center.
However, fans got a first look at the new-look Badgers during an exhibition match last week, where Wisconsin defeated UW-Stevens Point 87-44 at the Kohl Center.
The storyline of the exhibition game was transfer A.J. Storr, who led the team with 14 points as a starter.
But, another major storyline was the player he replaced: guard Connor Essegian, who has been relegated to the sixth-man role this season, with Chucky Hepburn, Max Klesmit, Tyler Wahl, Steven Crowl, and Storr starting for the Badgers.
Essegian, the team’s second-leading scorer in 2023 and a top three-point shooter, served as a wing in a shorter lineup last season that featured three players standing at 6’4 or smaller.
With Storr’s arrival in Madison, Essegian has become the odd man out, but could it be a good thing for Wisconsin?
Last season, the Badgers lacked scoring off the bench, leading head coach Greg Gard to shorten his rotation earlier in the season to seven or eight players, highlighting his top five to a greater extent.
This year, the Badgers have two “microwave” options, or scorers that can create their own shots at will, along the wings in Essegian and Storr, which is why it makes sense to stagger their minutes, providing more shots across the board and keeping a high-profile option to lean on with the second unit.
Head coach Greg Gard acknowledged the value of having Essegian off the bench, pointing to the importance of a good scoring punch off the bench and the versatility it provides with lineups.
“I think it gives us a good weapon,” Gard said about Essegian coming off the bench. “I think the really good teams I’ve been on, I’ve had a scoring punch off the bench. So for him, I think it’s a good time for him to come in and get in a rhythm and we can play with different combinations.”
Has anything changed with Essegian’s approach?
If anything, it’s allowed him to play more free, as there are ample scoring opportunities with the second unit, while Gard is still trusting the shooting guard with the green light.
“With him, as I did tonight, he’s not bashful, that’s for sure, but he’s one of those guys that you let him shoot it if he thinks he’s proven it enough,” Gard said about Essegian.
“His numbers in practice are really good, too. He’s in the 40s for the volume he takes from three. To shoot it at that level in live action is good. So, yeah, if he likes it, he’s got the green light to shoot it right up here.”
Now, the biggest question when it comes to Essegian is whether he’ll be in the lineup to close games.
In a way, the closing lineup is more valuable than the starting lineup, as those are the five that a coach will rely on in crunch time.
The potential solution could be the involvement with Essegian on offense, while placing combo guard Max Klesmit in on defense in a stagger to end games, but the Badgers also value the latter’s shooting and playmaking ability.
While Friday’s game isn’t projected to be close, as the Badgers are seen as 13.5-point favorites, Wisconsin has a tough test against Tennessee on Friday, which could propel the team to bring out their crunch-time lineup.