Unbeaten Wisconsin shows balance, power in Big Ten opener
EVANSTON, Ill. – To find that rarest of specimens -- the selfish Wisconsin basketball player -- one had to have the good fortune of being at a Dave & Buster’s in Addison, Ill., during a recent Kaminsky family Christmastime gathering. There, Frank Kaminsky received a challenge from his sister, Kaylee, who by decree of their father has the purest shooting stroke of any of his children.
This was a point of dispute. Not least due to the fact that Frank set a single-game Wisconsin record with 43 points about a month earlier. So the pair inevitably faced off at one of the place’s shooting games. And Kaylee won. Promptly, Frank took offense.
“He got mad, went and got some more tokens, and kept going until he beat her,” Frank Kaminsky Sr., recalled Thursday, as he and dozens of friends and family assembled to watch his son’s team take on Northwestern. “It took a couple games."
This counts among the few things that one of the Badgers will not let pass, because it is with resolute and lethal selflessness that the program is off to its best start in 100 years. Wisconsin kept rolling in its Big Ten opener on Thursday with a 76-49 demolition Northwestern, a win somehow utterly mechanical and unpredictable at once.
The 55.2 percent shooting, the 34.5 percent shooting allowed, the four players in double figures and grand total of four turnovers comprised the clinical part. The 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting from Nigel Hayes, a freshman averaging single digits, to spark a runaway? That was the happy surprise. Wisconsin moved to 14-0 because it mostly does what it is expected to do, which is to leave the other team entirely clueless about what will happen.
“We kind of found out that each of our games complement each other so well that it doesn’t really matter who gets to shine on any given night,” said Sam Dekker, the sophomore with the NBA future who scored 15 points Thursday. “We’ve got seven, eight, nine guys that can come in and score and give us valuable minutes. If we’ve got a bunch of guys who can do that and cause problems, I think we’ll be a tough team to scout.”
About the only misstep of the evening was Bo Ryan, the silver-haired maestro of it all, nearly knocking a recorder off the podium and to the floor during his postgame remarks. Naturally he caught it, holding his hands up and pronouncing, They’re registered.
“I’ve always been pretty honest: This is an amazing group, to this point,” the Badgers coach said. “It’s 14 games. They’ve found ways in some games to turn the tide, to stem a run, to manage to recover. They’ve been resilient. They’ve responded to hard teaching points, criticism, compliments. They listen.”
Frontcourt forces new and old underscored that Thursday. Hayes was a top 100 recruit out of Toledo, Ohio, assimilating into a hardened team that nevertheless could have used some help in the paint. As of Dec. 11, he had posted no double-figure scoring games. He’d managed 10 points, total, across four outings. If there were holes in his confidence, Badgers veterans overstuffed them with reassurance. After dealing with Hayes’ 6-foot-7, 250-pound, chiseled-from-pyrite frame in practice, Dekker encouraged Hayes to use it freely on bull-rushes to the lane in games. Junior point guard Traevon Jackson buzzed Hayes even more constantly.
“He’s been in my ear since I’ve been here, saying they’re going to need me this year,” Hayes said. “He’s been giving me the confidence I needed. I hadn’t been asserting myself. Thanks to Trae telling me, ‘You can shoot, you can score, they can’t guard you,’ I’m finally starting to play like that.”
In the first half Thursday, Hayes left the bench to spur a languid attack early. He finished in the lane. He hit step-back jumpers from the post. Later, Hayes stumbled on a move into the paint only to scoop a pass to Dekker for a dunk. On the next possession, Dekker needle-eyed a feed to Hayes for a flush. Badgers veterans were comfortable enough to encourage a newcomer to assert himself, and the reward may be another piece to add to the unpredictability.
“We don’t have guys that can go to the hole as hard as he does and as consistent as he does,” Dekker said. “I just try to keep him mentally focused and keep him realizing how much of a nightmare he can be.”
For Kaminsky, the nightmare came years before, as a reedy high school sophomore packed in full to join his AAU team on a trip to Kansas City. Then Mike Mullins, the coach of the Illinois Wolves, judged him unready. He told Kaminsky he would be left behind. On the ride home, Kaminsky said nothing. He cried some. Frank Sr., who played collegiately at Lewis University, filled in the silence by asking his son if he truly wanted to do this basketball thing. If he didn’t, Frank Sr. wasn’t going to waste more of his time. If he did, then Frank Jr. needed to listen to Mr. Mullins.
“I got pissed off,” Kaminsky said. “I wasn’t happy with where I was, and I knew I had to work on it to get better. How I viewed it, by me not going, someone else on the team was taking something that I could have. I wanted it. I think I wanted it more than them. In the gym, that’s all I thought about.”
That birthed the resolve that helped Kaminsky endure a minor role for two years at Wisconsin. His numbers leapt from 4.2 points per game on 43.9 percent shooting to 13.9 and 56.1 this season.
As much as anyone, he is Ryan’s master plan, stretched seven feet high. “He recruits guys that are hungry and want to get better,” Kaminsky said. “He doesn’t get many one-and-done players. He has players who are here for the long haul and are going to get better and buy into his system.”
It doesn’t hurt to splice in, say, a Dekker, who many slate as a first-round pick next summer. But the point mostly holds. The program currently operates at full capacity and full confidence. On, Wisconsin, indeed.
Jackson said the team asked itself the question this summer: Why can’t we be the best? The answer lies in how much one Wisconsin player trusts another with the ball, how much one player knows precisely which pass to make when another cuts to the rim, how much players care by demonstrating exactly how little they care.
“I thought there were maybe only one or two shots in the second half that looked like a guy might have been trying to get his,” Ryan said after the Northwestern drubbing. “That’s it.”
Someone asked Ryan last week if this was his best team. That question came up again Thursday. Still trying to figure that out, the Badgers coach said, while having no time to do so. Wisconsin was one of three Big Ten teams in the top 5 of the Associated Press poll. Dangerous Iowa loomed. Ultimately, on this topic, Ryan registered another pass.
“I just want to keep trying to build and give them the teaching points and keep trying to build off what we have going,” Ryan said. “Because there’s so much out there. There’s a lot of good teams in this league. And it’s going to be a wild one.” Everyone will see Wisconsin coming. They just may not know what comes next.