After a one-year hiatus, Wisconsin looks like an NCAA tournament team again.
The Badgers saw their 19-year streak of March Madness appearances snapped by an injury-marred 2017-18 season. With its two starting guards banged up, Wisconsin stumbled to a losing record. Point guard D’Mitrik Trice missed the final 23 games of the year with an injured foot, forcing true freshman Brad Davison—a natural shooting guard—to take over at point, where he played nearly the entire season with a hurt shoulder that required offseason surgery.
Trice and Davison are back at full strength this season. That’s bad news for the Big Ten because it means Ethan Happ is no longer alone. Happ, the preseason first-team All-American who elected to return to school for his senior season, led Wisconsin with 30 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in a 77-68 road victory over Xavier on Tuesday night. Trice scored a career-high 22 and Davison added 19 of his own, meaning the Badgers’ big three scored all but six of the teams’ points. It looked for a while like no one outside that trio would score at all–the fourth player to score, Khalil Iverson, did so more than five minutes into the second half.
This was the second consecutive Gavitt Games meeting between these two teams, though the only thing Xavier carried over from that matchup was the name on its jerseys. 75 of the 80 points the Musketeers scored against Wisconsin a year ago left the program in the offseason. Star wings Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura departed, as did several key role players and coach Chris Mack, who took the Louisville job after nine years at Xavier. As a result, Travis Steele’s team is a work in progress.
Wisconsin appeared to be in midseason form in just its second game of the year. The Badgers looked much like they did for the entirety of the 21st century prior to last season, executing to near perfection the swing offense Greg Gard learned during his 15 years as an assistant under Bo Ryan. Wisconsin didn’t rush the ball up the court in transition, preferring to patiently control the tempo and get into its half-court sets. Once there, the ball whipped around the perimeter, screens were set, cuts were made and open shots were the norm.
It all runs through Happ, the incomparable 6-foot-10 forward who dominates games with his footwork in the post and his passing ability from anywhere on the court. In his 107th college game—all as a starter—Happ was unstoppable. He made a career-high 15 field goals (on 23 attempts), displaying his entire repertoire of spins, pump-fakes and finishes with either hand. When he’s backing down a defender on the block, Happ has a deep arsenal of moves he can use to get a good look. But what makes him one of the best players in the country (he posted the second triple double in Wisconsin history in the opener vs. Coppin State) is that he also has the experience and ability to counter if his first move isn’t there, allowing him to get the shot he wants almost every single time.
Last season, Happ was frequently swarmed by a second defender when he got the ball. That’s less likely to occur this year given the health and improvement of the rest of Wisconsin’s rotation. If you focus too much attention on No. 22, he’ll kick it out to a shooter; four of Happ’s five assists led to threes by Trice or Davison.
Trice was fantastic in his first game against major-conference competition in almost a year. He made all five of his three-point attempts, something Wisconsin sorely missed as it finished 244th in the nation in three-point percentage (33.5%) a season ago. Most importantly, Trice exhibited fantastic chemistry with Happ. The two were one step ahead of Xavier’s defense all night, whether on high ball-screens or simply within the flow of the offense. Four of Trice’s five assists were to Happ for layups or dunks. The redshirt sophomore played well beyond his years in directing the Badgers’ offense and has a chance to be one of the better point guards in the country.
Outside of Happ, no one was more excited to have Trice back than Davison. The gritty, ultra-competitive Davison was a warrior last season, leading the team in minutes despite dislocating his left shoulder in November and re-injuring it at least five times after that. With his backcourt partner present again, he was free to slide back to his more comfortable role playing off the ball. Davison made four threes, including two late in the shot-clock, and drove hard to basket several times for right-handed layups. He also displayed his usual tenacity on the defensive end in diving for loose balls.
For the Badgers, the win exacted a measure of revenge against a team they were playing for the third consecutive calendar year. In the 2016 Round of 32, Bronson Koenig drilled a buzzer-beating three to take down Xavier. Last November, the Musketeers won in Madison, leading Macura to taunt the Wisconsin student section with a gator-chomp celebration. After drilling a dagger three late in Tuesday’s game, Davison brought out the exact same celebration. He hadn’t forgotten.
The college basketball season is barely a week old, but this was an important road victory for Wisconsin that could look better in March than it does now. Xavier is still figuring things out; it was disoriented on offense for much of the night and a step slow on defense at times. Still, Steele’s team has the depth and talent to make noise this year. Sophomore Naji Marshall dropped 24 points and 13 rebounds, and upperclassmen Quentin Goodin and Evan Welage won’t shoot a combined 2-of-15 from three every night. Steele isn’t rebuilding; he added three grad transfers to the roster, including Zach Hankins, the 2017-18 D-II National Player of the Year who impressed with a double double and four blocks. The culture at Xavier is why it has made 12 of the last 13 NCAA tournaments. Don’t expect that to drop off with Mack gone.
On this night, the more cohesive unit won. Wisconsin didn’t play a single freshman against Xavier. Of the 70 points it scored against the Musketeers last season, players who accounted for 63 were active for this game. The Badgers are hoping to get Aleem Ford—a sophomore who scored six of the other seven—back from an injury at some point. They’ll need other role players to step up going forward, too. Brevin Pritzl missed all six of his shots. Nate Reuvers and Kobe King will be more involved. Iverson, the other senior, is a fantastic complement with his defense and rebounding.
The performance of its big three should serve as a confidence-booster for Wisconsin heading into even bigger challenges. The Badgers will head to the Bahamas over Thanksgiving break to play in the Battle 4 Atlantis. If they can get past a beatable Stanford team in the opening round, they’ll face Florida or Oklahoma with a potential matchup against Virginia in the championship. They also have road games against Iowa and Marquette before the calendar flips to 2019.
Davison’s taunt wasn’t just a rebuttal to Macura’s the year prior. It was also a statement.
Wisconsin is back.