The Wisconsin Badgers have endured a rough patch in their season, having lost four consecutive games, which has caused a drop from No. 6 in the AP Top 25 to No. 20.
However, one of the bright spots during the poor stretch has been sophomore guard Connor Essegian, who has made the most of recent minutes.
Over the last five games, Essegian has averaged 11 minutes a game, scoring 6.4 points a game and shooting 44.4 percent from the field.
That led up to a 24-minute game for Essegian during Wisconsin’s 78-56 blowout loss to Rutgers, where Essegian scored 15 points on 5/12 shooting, acting as the primary sparkplug off the bench.
Wisconsin has seen some injuries recently to their guard depth, as Kamari McGee has been out with a leg injury, while John Blackwell was banged up late last week in practice.
As a result, a few minutes have opened up and head coach Greg Gard has turned to players like Essegian to fill the void.
“I expected that he would respond how he did,” Gard said about Essegian’s response to the early-season struggles and lack of minutes. “Which he’s responded really well. He’s put a lot of extra time in off away from practice to get his body better, you know, and I think he’s made great strides. And what I see in practicing games is he’s got his swagger and his fight back.”
While Essegian’s primary quality is his shot-making ability, Gard has noticed how the guard has impacted the game in other ways this season.
“It’s not about making shots,” Gard said about Essegian. “That’s great, and everybody loves that. But I watch the other parts of what he does to impact the game and how he’s flying around more now, comparing him last year to this year. Just movement, change of direction, speed, those types of things.”
Gard and the staff noticed Essegian’s attention to detail about the extra things early in France, and were hoping to see more of those details, which has come on as of late.
“And that’s what I wanted him to get back to was being active and doing things other than shooting. And that’s what [we] encouraged him about last year early,” Gard said. “What I saw in France a year and a half ago was him diving on the floor, getting an offensive rebound, just weighing 150 pounds or whatever he did at that time, and not afraid to mix it up. “
“So you had to get back to that, get your feet in the fire instead of just kind of hanging around the outside of it, really get involved with it and compete, and he’s done that.”
Essegian’s confidence remains high. But, the guard acknowledged on Monday that seeing shots go in does help for morale and getting back into his own as a player.
“It helps,” Essegian said about seeing shots fall. “But like I said, I know the work that I put in. I know what I have in my arsenal, and if minutes continue to be more or if they drop back down, I’m not really too worried.”
“But, to see a couple shots go down, it does help.”
When it comes to playmaking, Essegian is just going back to his roots, understanding what makes him the player he is, while bringing back some of that swagger he showcased last year.
“Making plays like that is what got me to this level. It’s what made me who I am as a person, and as a basketball player. And if I shy away from that, then I won’t be a successful or good basketball player for me or for this team,” Essegian said.
“And Wisconsin basketball is based around that. And so if I continue to do that and keep that swagger and keep that intensity, then it just helps everybody out.”
Essegian’s relationship with Gard has been questioned, given how the guard has been utilized this season.
But, the sophomore brushed away any potential concerns, instead praising his coach for remaining open and keeping him accountable.
“The way that he’s kind of pushed me helps us a lot,” Essegian said about Gard. “I mean, just him being open, keeping me accountable is something that I’ve grown up with coaching my entire life. Every coach I’ve had has always been on me, and that’s what’s got me to this point.”
“So for him to be able to hold me accountable and for us to be able to do that with each other, it’s helped me grow as a person and as a player. He loves to see that I’m still in the gym despite what happened at the beginning of the year, with injuries, with time. He just knows that I’m always in the gym, I’m always working. And so he knows and tells me it’s always on me to continue to do that.”
The Badgers will look to bounce back on Tuesday when they host Ohio State at the Kohl Center, with tip-off scheduled for 8:00 P.M.
With John Blackwell limited in practice Monday and McGee still at least 10 days away, Essegian could see extra minutes again on Tuesday.