CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Kobe King was warned.
Coaches and teammates on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team cautioned the freshman guard from La Crosse that going from exhibition play to the start of the regular season was more of a leap than a step.
This reminder from Badgers assistant coach Howard Moore after King had emerged as the team’s unofficial preseason MVP: “You haven’t done anything yet. Now they count.”
This advice from Trevor Anderson, who is sitting out this season after transferring from UW-Green Bay, where he started 20 games as a true freshman last season: “College is a different thing. There are a lot of ups and downs.”
It’s not as if King let that information go in one ear and out the other. He listened and tried to prepare accordingly.
But it wasn’t until King experienced it first-hand that he truly understood what Moore, Anderson and others were saying.
“The intensity level,” King said, “raises up a little bit.”
The good news for the Badgers (3-3), who face Virginia (6-0) tonight in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game at John Paul Jones Arena, is that it appears King seems to be adjusting to life as a rookie at the college level.
After a rough start to his career, King has bounced back with solid performances in back-to-back games. UW coach Greg Gard has taken notice and rewarded King with longer stretches on the floor.
“I think with Kobe, the real season kind of caught him,” Gard said. “He’s a freshman, you’ve got to keep that in mind, and I’ve tried to remind everybody that it may not be as smooth sailing as it appears.
“He’s had to grow and make some mistakes and learn and understand that there’s some accountability, that you don’t just go out and play. You have a responsibility to adhere to and you’ve got to make sure you’re doing the right things for your team. He’s growing.”
Expectations were through the roof for King as UW made the transition from the preseason to, as Gard put it, the real season. King had led the Badgers in scoring in a pair of exhibition games — finishing with 17 points against UW-Stout and 15 against Northern Iowa — and earlier had led all players with 16 points during the Red-White scrimmage. He’d also had a pair of double-digit performances during the Badgers’ trip to Australia and New Zealand in August.
But the regular season began on Nov. 10, and King struggled to stay on the floor. His minutes went down in each of the first four games, from 18 to 13 to 12 to only six in UW’s 70-65 loss to No. 22 Baylor in a Hall of Fame Classic semifinal last week.
King looked lost at times on defense. That’s common for inexperienced players as they adjust to UW’s rules and principles on defense, and King was the first to admit that he needed to focus on building good habits so he could gain Gard’s trust.
“You just have to pay more attention to detail,” King said. “Coach really wants you to lock in on the little things.”
What are some of the details that matter most to Gard?
“How long do you have?” Gard said. “You’re talking about five months since June of details being taught. Everything from how we play ball screens to how you chase shooters off screens to how we transition defensively to how do we play the post? A simple ball fake, the impact it can have. How do you cut, how do you set up the post? How do you feed the post?”
The details will be particularly important against the Cavaliers, whose perfect start includes wins away from home over VCU, Vanderbilt and Rhode Island.
Gard and Virginia coach Tony Bennett worked alongside one another as assistants on Bo Ryan’s staff at UW from 2001-03. Bennett has adopted the same pack line defensive concept that his father, Dick, created during a legendary coaching career that included a run of five-plus seasons with the Badgers.
According to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, Virginia’s defense has finished in the top 10 nationally in five of the past six seasons. They are No. 1 in that category through the first two weeks of the 2017-18 campaign.
“It’ll be a phenomenal test for us,” Gard said. “He’s obviously done a great job there. I’ve known him for a long time and he’s a good friend. We’re looking forward to it.
“It’ll be a terrific test for our young guys to see another team that’s really good and physical and has some experience. And obviously the first true road game, so that’ll be another first for these guys.”
That group includes King, who is trending in the right direction. He scored seven of his nine points after halftime in UW’s 72-70 loss to No. 23 UCLA last Tuesday and finished with eight points in a 71-49 victory over UW-Milwaukee three days later.
King acknowledged that he let his offensive struggles affect his play on defense, resulting in lapses that earned him a spot on the bench.
“I’ve just got to stay aggressive,” King said. “I can’t be too scared, too shy out there, or really scared to make mistakes. I’ve just got to play hard and do things our way without forcing it.
“I’ve been a little passive. But I think as the season grows, I will, too.”
Gard has a simple explanation for King’s improved play of late.
“I think Kobe’s gotten more comfortable,” Gard said, “that’s the biggest thing.”