The Wisconsin Badgers have had a tumultuous season. There’s no other way to put it, as they currently stand at 15-10, but possess a 7-8 conference record.
Amongst the issues? The lack of talented depth on the Wisconsin bench, forcing starters to play heavy minutes and the Badgers’ to be undermanned against tougher opponents.
However, as March arrives and with benches generally shortening, the Badgers may be coming into their own with an eight-man rotation that they can potentially utilize with the season on the line.
When talking about the Badgers, they have a clear core four: Chucky Hepburn, Tyler Wahl, Steven Crowl, and Connor Essegian, while starter Max Klesmit is a talented defender.
But, with the season on the line, it wasn’t the star players that showed up with strong performances, but instead, the unsung heroes on Tuesday in Wisconsin’s 64-59 win over the Michigan Wolverines.
Kamari McGee played a season-high 14 minutes, scoring six points, while grabbing a rebound and an assist, while Carter Gilmore successfully defended Hunter Dickinson throughout the game, as the Michigan center scored just once on the Badgers’ backup.
Greg Gard, who has been effusive in his praise of Gilmore all season, despite outside criticism, shared some love to his forward without being asked, praising the junior’s defensive ability and knack for doing the little things.
“Gilmore doesn’t have any points [and] never took a shot, but he was invaluable in terms of what he did defensively. The jump ball he had late in the game. You know, he’s gotten really good at backside screening when we’re working somebody in the post. So, he’s always had a high IQ and a feel for the game and he’s starting to get more and more consistent on some of those little things that help his teammates when it doesn’t involve him scoring.”
Gard even compared Gilmore to his father, who played at UW-Platteville, adding that the forward’s understanding of his role allows his game to unfold.
“He understands the game. I’m watching him in front of me in the first half: how he defensively worked the post, it reminded me of his dad, back at Platteville how he used to, you know, front and move his feet and play with your hips. You know, [Carter] can guard bigger guys, you know, because you can work on leverage and anticipate where offensive players are going and making sure we had ball pressure around [Hunter Dickinson]. So it’s not as easy of a catch. And then, you know, we obviously sent a double team most of the night. So I think he just like I said, he just keeps battling and understands that his role is to help in ways that maybe don’t always involve being the leading scorer. And he’s okay with that.”
Gilmore prides himself on fulfilling his role, understanding that the fluctuations of the game require him to be prepared at any moment.
“Yeah, my mindset is just go in there and play as hard as I can and if my number gets called, just go in there and do what I can do,” Gilmore said. “So whether I play nine minutes or 20 minutes, I’m just going to go in there, play hard and if a play presents itself, make it. But other than that, my mindset is really just go in there and make the right play and do whatever the team needs at the given time.”
As for Dickinson, Gilmore used his fresh legs to his advantage, forcing Dickinson to work for every opportunity, and playing an extremely sound game defensively, especially in the second half, when the Michigan center was essentially a non-factor.
“I knew we needed to get a win, so obviously, Hunter Dickinson is a big part of their team, and I knew they would probably kind of look to him when I was guarding him, knowing that it was a little bit of a mismatch, but he was also playing a little bit more than I was, so I was a little fresher. I was able to use my energy I had and use that to my advantage. So just working, staying low, getting into his knees and just wanting a little more than he did, and that’s what I got to do when I’m undersized. So I just wanted it more and working hard.”
Alongside Gilmore, the Badgers got valuable minutes from Kamari McGee in a career-best performance at Madison, which was extremely valuable in taking pressure off of starter Chucky Hepburn.
In [Kamari McGee], I thought, you know, he’s practiced well, he’s given a spark before, and I thought it was a good matchup for him. [It helped] take some of the pressure off Chucky [Hepburn],” Gard said. “[Hepburn] was just constantly having to you know, facilitate things and run that it gives him a time just to rest and reflect a little bit too. [McGee] made the most of his opportunities. I thought he did a good job and you know, that’s been the key.”
McGee himself acknowledged what the performance did for his confidence, which will be vital down the stretch, as the Badgers need contributions from each of their role players to keep up with opposing teams.
Is there pressure on the bench, given the short leash and the shorter rotation?
Gilmore doesn’t believe so, pointing out how other rotations around college basketball also utilize seven players, instead thinking of the opportunities as a chance to gain some rhythm.
“I don’t think there’s too much pressure having a short bench. I think we’re playing seven to eight guys and it just shows that Coach believes in us seven to eight guys and we got to go out there and perform. You look around the league, a lot of teams only play seven guys and if they go over that, the other guys don’t play too much either. So, I don’t think it adds too much pressure to us. I think it just shows that we’re going to go out there and helps the bench guys get a little more of a rhythm.”
But, Gilmore did acknowledge how a certain element furthered his confidence: tuning out the outside noise.
“Yeah, [tuning out the outside criticism] just kind of what helped me started played better too. The outside people, I just really realized they don’t really know what’s going on out there. It’s the guys that are in here that are my best friends on this team that matter,” Gilmore said. “The people that are tweeting, they don’t know the work we put in every day. They don’t see me putting in the extra time all the time. And I just believe in my ability and I know my teammates know what I bring to the table. So just seeing them believe in me has helped me believe in myself a little more too.
The toughest part of the transition was likely the start-over for Gilmore, coming from being the top guy in high school to the bottom as a walk-on in college, which has been a valuable learning experience for the junior.
“Yeah, I think it was just a growing experience. Coming from Arrowhead, I was kind of the top guy ever since my sophomore year, so I came in with the high notion. Then, coming here as a walk-on. it was just kind of a whole new process for me, having to learn to be the underdog again, having to learn how to work for everything I got,” Gilmore said.
Despite the difficulties, Gilmore has appreciated the experience, which has made him a better player and person.
And, it’s just helped me mature and grow into a better person. And I know, as I look back on it, I don’t take it for granted all the hard times, because it made me work harder and realize how much work I’ve put in in order to play at this next level. And hopefully, I can play even better and keep working and take my role to the next level as well.
The Badgers are in the position they’re in because of the contributions of players like Connor Essegian, Chucky Hepburn, Tyler Wahl, and Steven Crowl.
But, they wouldn’t have kept their postseason hopes alive if not for their unsung heroes that are going to be integral to their formula down the stretch.