COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Alex Illikainen sat in a chair at the Kohl Center following practice last month, politely answering questions about his past, present and future.
The junior forward on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team was seated where the Badgers’ bench is located during games. It’s a view that is all-too-familiar for Illikainen, who has done far more sitting than playing during a UW career that is well past its midpoint.
At the time, Illikainen was coming off a solid showing at Purdue on Jan. 16. One of the few bright spots in the 78-50 loss to the Boilermakers that night was the play of Illikainen, who finished with five points and three rebounds in 16 minutes and helped limit the 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas to two points.
It was a step forward, Illikainen acknowledged, but it wasn’t enough. He’d have to stack another positive showing on top of this one … and then another … and then another.
“That’s what (UW coach Greg Gard) has been talking to me a lot about,” Illikainen said, “because the last couple of years I’ve had some decent games and then I was not there the next game. I think that’s what he’s pushing to do and that’s what I’ve been trying to do is be consistent, and game after game be there, so they can rely on me when they need to.”
Later that week, Illikainen played a season-high 22 minutes in a win over Illinois. Another step in the right direction.
But the momentum stopped there. Illikainen played poorly on defense during an 85-67 loss at Iowa on Jan. 23 and, after playing 14 minutes at Michigan State three days later, was on the floor for a combined nine minutes during home losses to Nebraska and Northwestern last week.
It remains to be seen how much time Illikainen sees Sunday when the Badgers (10-14, 3-8 Big Ten) face Maryland (15-9, 4-7) at the XFINITY Center.
One of the keys if UW was going to extend its NCAA tournament streak this season after losing four senior starters to graduation was finding a complement to junior center Ethan Happ in the frontcourt. The candidates with the best shot at stepping into that role were three members of the 2015 recruiting class: Illikainen, along with fellow juniors Andy Van Vliet and Charlie Thomas.
Their inability to take that step forced Gard to call an audible early in the season and pull the redshirt off freshman Nate Reuvers. It’s also led some to wonder if one of the pillars of UW’s success over the years — developing players — has disappeared since Gard moved over one seat on the bench midway through the 2015-16 season after Bo Ryan retired.
It’s a fair question, and Gard and his staff deserve at least part of the blame for not getting Illiakainen, Van Vliet and Thomas to reach their potential as they near the end of their third season in the program.
But Illikainen, for his part, blames only one person: himself.
“It’s all on myself,” he said in January. “I just realized maybe some people think you can make that jump because it’s your time now, somebody moved on and now it’s your time. But it’s just all development. Frank Kaminsky and those guys, they worked their butts off. Ethan took that year (as a redshirt), he worked his butt off and now he’s the player he is.
“But there are a lot of guys down the line, they didn’t just sit back and relax and all of a sudden become good. That’s all on me. I’ve just got to keep working and work even harder to make up for some lost time and just try to give this team something, a little boost.”
Getting passed up by Reuvers should have been a wake-up call for Illikainen. But even though he understood the reason why and respected Reuvers for earning the promotion, Illikainen went into a funk and stopped fighting to get his spot back.
UW sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl, who lives with Illikainen and Van Vliet, said Illikainen “just checked out” early in the season. That response made Pritzl, who has had his own battles with inconsistency and lost his starting spot early in the season, angry at his friend.
“For a while, I gave up on him because I was so (mad) at him,” Pritzl said. “I can’t take that kind of behavior.”
While it wasn’t easy to hear blunt assessments from Pritzl — or get ignored by him in their apartment — Illikainen couldn’t dispute the criticism.
“If he wasn’t happy with the way I was working or doing things, he would tell me,” Illikainen said. “He was actually mad at me, which is good. That’s what you want.”
Illikainen snapped out of his funk and started working harder in practice. The next step is becoming more consistent, a difficult task for players bouncing between the scout team and the group of rotation players in practice.
“Coach has pulled him on his side of the floor multiple times and he’s had chances to stay over there,” assistant coach Howard Moore said. “The key is you’ve got to earn that right to stay over there. I think he understands that he’s had some chances and some of them he’s squandered and some of them have been given by default. But now you’re here. Now what?”
Illikainen can hear the clock ticking on his UW career. He can hear the whispers — or read them on social media sites, rather — calling him a bust.
Now what? That’s up to him.
“There’s still time,” said Illikainen, who was rated as the No. 95 prospect in the 2015 class by ESPN when he committed to UW in the summer of 2014. “They’re passionate fans here. You can’t blame them for getting on people or if they’re saying something or tweeting something, that’s their right. I’ve just got to keep working on my end to change their opinion.”