You didn’t need to hear the words coming out of Jordan Hill’s mouth last season to understand how frustrating it was for him to sit and watch from the bench during games.
That scowl on his face told the story.
But at least then, Hill was redshirting during his second season with the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team and could rationalize that he wasn’t watching a year of eligibility waste away. Imagine how irritated the third-year sophomore guard was this season as he sat and watched, wondering if and when he’d ever get a chance to play significant minutes.
“Not being able to help the team and to contribute on the floor during the game killed me,” Hill said.
It’s like Hill has been granted a new lease on his basketball life since interim coach Greg Gard took over the program Dec. 15 following the retirement of Bo Ryan.
Hill appeared in seven of the first 12 games this season, playing 27 minutes in all.
In the two games since Gard replaced Ryan, Hill has played a total of 45 minutes, contributing 14 points, five rebounds and five assists.
Hill and the Badgers (8-6, 0-1 Big Ten) play Rutgers (6-8, 0-1) today at 1 p.m. at the Kohl Center.
“For me, personally, I don’t know how I’d deal with sitting all that time because I’m such a competitor and I know he is, too,” UW junior point guard Bronson Koenig said of the 6-foot-3 Hill, who’s from Pasadena, California.
“Once I even asked him, ‘How do you do it?’ ”
It was a great question on Koenig’s part. How did Hill, who’s as competitive as anyone in the program, cope with the lack of playing time?
The one thing Hill didn’t do was look for an exit route. When Riley Dearring announced on Dec. 13 that he was leaving the program — the sophomore guard was in the same 2013 recruiting class as Hill, Koenig and junior forwards Nigel Hayes and Vitto Brown — some wondered whether Hill would be next to transfer.
Did Hill consider a move?
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to have to start a new life somewhere else. It’s a long process, I’ve made friendships with people here who I’m going to be friends with the rest of my life. Nigel and Bronson and Vitto are going to be in my wedding. I don’t want to leave those guys. I have some work left to do here and I wanted to give it everything I could.
“I understand what Riley had to do and I understand when people transfer it just wasn’t the right fit and you have to do what’s best for you. I felt what’s best for me is to do everything I could and exhaust all possibilities to be on the floor and make an impression on this program.”
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What has impressed the coaching staff was how engaged and invested Hill remained even when he wasn’t playing.
Hill was the unofficial captain of the scout team last season and continued in that role this season. He and Koenig are friends — the two were roommates as freshmen — but they’ve been involved in some spirited battles in practice because Hill takes his scout team role very seriously, is animated and clearly enjoys being a pest.
“I think he’s done an excellent job,” UW assistant coach Gary Close said of Hill, who played 25 minutes in 11 games as a true freshman in 2013-14 before sitting out last season. “You can hear him on the bench, you can hear him encouraging people. He’s very impressive in that regard and deserves an awful lot of credit.
“A lot of kids would not have handled it as well as he has. I’ve been impressed with that, very much so.”
Even after games in which Hill didn’t play a single second, he’d still find time to watch the video on his own. Part of it was to serve as an extra set of eyes for Hayes — the two are extremely close — but Hill also couldn’t stand losing and wanted to search for answers.
“My personal success is very important to me. I’m not going to lie — it’s paramount,” Hill said. “That’s why everybody comes to a big university to do this at this level. I would never lie about that.
“But at the same time, I’m part of a team. Those are my brothers out there and I want them to be the best that they can be. If I see something I can help them with, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell them.”
That said, it was much more enjoyable for Hill to sit down and watch the video from Gard’s debut on Dec. 23 against UW-Green Bay. Hill contributed 10 points, four rebounds and four assists in 22 minutes during the Badgers’ 84-79 victory over the Phoenix.
When Hill went back and watched the game, he tried to focus on what he was doing when he didn’t have the ball in his hands. How was his spacing? Was he being a good leader and putting his teammates in position to score? Did he look relaxed? Was he playing with confidence?
“I think he’s welcomed the chance,” Gard said. “I think he’s taken advantage of his opportunities. He hasn’t played every possession perfect, and I think that’s what we’ve really strived to emphasize is that every possession matters, every drill matters, everything we do as we build toward making ourselves better, matters.
“Everybody’s going to get an opportunity. They’ve understood that I will (hand out minutes) based on how you’re playing.”
At the very least, Hill can take some of the toll off Koenig.
“He needs to get off the floor a little bit,” Close said of Koenig, whose 35.4 minutes per game ranks third in the Big Ten, two spots below Hayes (36.5). “Especially with all the ball-handling that he’s doing and the defensive requirements that we have, he’s just going to wear down with that many minutes.”
All along, Hill has lived by a simple mantra: Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. Now that he’s been given a chance to play, Hill wants to be ready to contribute as much as possible.
“I’m glad that he just stayed patient and stuck with it,” Koenig said. “I can’t tell you how happy I am for him.”