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How Wisconsin men’s basketball turned a weakness into a strength

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With Chucky Hepburn and Tyler Wahl struggling to make baskets, Wisconsin used its depth to escape with a 56-45 win over UW-Green Bay on Tuesday night at the Kohl Center. 

The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team was struggling when Johnny Davis got hurt during last season’s regular-season finale against Nebraska. No one could seem to make shots or step up to fill the hole, and the Badgers lost to the Cornhuskers.

The loss cost UW the outright Big Ten regular-season title.

The Badgers also struggled to respond when Chucky Hepburn left UW’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against Iowa State with an injury late in the first half. Lorne Bowman II wasn’t with the team, so UW tried Davis, Brad Davison, Jahcobi Neath and walk-on Isaac Lindsey at point guard, but it wasn’t enough.

The loss ended UW’s season.

The Badgers paid a hefty price for their depth issues last season. UW hopes to rectify that this season.

“We kind of learned last year and got caught,” UW assistant coach Dean Oliver said. “We always want to try to give guys looks at different roles. It's been different days and different guys have stepped up.”

UW is only three games into the season, but the players and coaches already are claiming depth as a strength. 

UW coach Greg Gard has played at least 11 players in each game with a different first man off the bench in each. There were different leading scorers each night and there’s been position shuffling for multiple players. 

“It's part of me learning what they're capable of,” Gard said. “Part of it’s development — they gotta keep pushing forward and taking steps forward, whether it's in game action or practice. The depth, we're going to need it. I think it can be an advantage to us as we go forward.”

Oliver said one offseason goal was to find a reliable backup point guard so the Badgers could avoid a position like they were in against Iowa State. Hepburn will start, but they needed to add pieces behind him.

UW brought in transfers Kamari McGee and Max Klesmit. McGee offers speed and athleticism, while Klesmit can swing between both guard spots. Lindsey, who was awarded a scholarship before the season started, has limited experience playing the position at UW. 

All four already have played point guard this season. McGee was the first player off the bench for Hepburn in the season opener, Lindsey was against Stanford and Klesmit stepped in while Hepburn was having an off night against Green Bay. 

“We have a lot of interchangeable parts within the team,” Klesmit said. “We always talked about there's not really a certain number you got on the floor. You got all the positions, all the spots. Just being ready in case someone gets in foul trouble, may get hurt, so you're ready to play in that position.” 

Klesmit committed two early fouls in the Stanford game, which opened the door for freshman Connor Essegian. Tyler Wahl had an off night against Green Bay, which allowed Carter Gilmore to play a career-high 20 minutes.

Gilmore has come in for both Wahl and center Steven Crowl. The UW coaching staff had a conversation with Gilmore over the summer about him needing to play center in certain situations.

He’s been Crowl’s main backup so far this season. He then will sub for Wahl and slide to power forward, sometimes forcing him to pull double duty without a break.

“It's not the easiest job to come in there and do it,” Gilmore said. “Nor is it probably my favorite. But at the end of the day, I'm just going to do whatever it takes to help our team win. There's a lot of opportunities for me to create and do stuff that a prototypical five doesn't get to do.”

Oliver said players want to help any way possible, even if it isn’t scoring. Even if it’s only for a few minutes.

Take Chris Hodges for example. He only has played eight minutes this season, but he had an offensive rebound against Stanford that led to a Wahl basket to put UW up by six points in the first half.

McGee only has played 16 minutes but has recorded three assists. Essegian is averaging 5.3 points over 15 minutes.

“With our returners, you know they’re probably going to get the majority shots most nights,” Oliver said. “How else can you help the team? I think a lot of guys are buying in and looking for those little roles. That's what this team's gonna need, guys that can do that.”

It helps take pressure off the leading scorers, Wahl and Hepburn. The Badgers were in for trouble when Davison and Davis didn’t perform well offensively in a game last season. Hepburn doesn’t think that will be the case this season.

Hepburn and Wahl went a combined 4 for 25 against Green Bay on Tuesday. Jordan Davis made up for the off night by scoring more than 10 points for the second time this season — his career-high was seven points before the Stanford game.

“That's what I love about the team,” Hepburn said. “Anybody can score from one to five. It might be my night, it might be Tyler’s night, it might be Steven’s night, but everybody's gonna be able to score and put the ball in.”

The depth will be important at the Battle 4 Atlantis since UW will have games on three consecutive days against talented opponents. There is only one team in the field that isn’t in the top 100 teams ranked on Kenpom.com — Butler at 115. 

The Badgers open against Dayton at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. They then will play either NC State or Kansas on Thursday, followed by a matchup with Tennessee, Butler, Southern Cal or BYU on Friday.

“It's pretty taxing,” Oliver said. “It's nice to have some guys that can come in and are able to play big minutes. The more guys you have with short turnaround games, the better it is. I think it's great for all of them to get some great experience. Where can we grow in those three days against not just good opponents, but the best of the best?”

 

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