Tai Strickland was a strong candidate to redshirt when the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team began practice in late September.
A lot has changed since then, including Strickland’s readiness to contribute as a true freshman point guard.
“He’s come a long ways here in the last six, eight weeks,” UW coach Greg Gard said. “Eight weeks ago, he was not ready for this.”
Ready or not, Strickland may be in line for an expanded role starting Monday night when the No. 12 Badgers (7-1, 1-0 Big Ten) host Rutgers (5-2, 0-1) at the Kohl Center.
Sophomore guard Trevor Anderson, the backup to starting point guard D’Mitrik Trice, left UW’s 72-66 win at No. 14 Iowa on Friday night with a right knee injury. Anderson didn’t practice Sunday and Gard said afterward UW wouldn’t have an update on the walk-on’s status until today at the earliest.
Anderson was injured while scoring on a drive with 12 minutes, 32 seconds remaining in the game, a basket which followed a three-point play by Luka Garza that gave the Hawkeyes their biggest lead at 46-38. Anderson immediately grabbed his leg and, after making it through the ensuing defensive possession, left the game and headed to the locker room with athletic trainer Henry Perez-Guerra.
The transfer from UW-Green Bay initially injured his right knee in a non-contact situation during a mid-October practice. While season-ending surgery was on the table at the time, Anderson decided to play through the pain because he didn’t want to spend another year on the sidelines after sitting out the 2017-18 campaign because of NCAA transfer rules.
Now, Anderson may not have a choice. If that’s the case, UW will need Strickland to get up to speed in a hurry.
Anderson appeared in each of the first eight games for a total of 55 minutes. Strickland has played 12 minutes in five games.
“I think he’s coming,” Gard said. “He’s obviously a freshman and there are some things he does really well and there are things he obviously hasn’t experienced yet as a freshman. That’s kind of why we’ve been spoon-feeding him as we’ve come through this, knowing that he brought some things to the table that we can use in terms of playmaking ability, speed with the ball. But he’s got to get some experience.”
One of the challenges for reserves, particularly younger players, is the waiting. Will they get in the game at all and, if they do, for how long?
Strickland hasn’t appeared at all in three of the past six games. In the other three, he got in for a minute each game.
“You’ve just got to go in with the mindset that you’re going to play. That’s something I have to work on, to be honest,” Strickland said. “Earlier in the season, I came in preparing like I’m going to start. And then, the season goes along and you get a couple games that you don’t play, you kind of start to get complacent and then you’re not really mentally prepared when you get in the game.”
The other challenge for Strickland is not trying to do too much when he does get on the court.
Gard noted Strickland went for an offensive rebound against North Carolina State last week when his primary responsibility was to stay in the backcourt and protect the rim on a fast break. Sure enough, the Wolfpack got the rebound and met little resistance en route to an easy basket in transition.
Strickland got in the game in the second half against Iowa and, on his second possession, was called for an offensive foul. Strickland’s eyes lit up when he momentarily had an open path to the basket after dribbling through a trap near half court, but Garza recovered in plenty of time and was waiting for Strickland outside the block-charge area.
In retrospect, Strickland says he should have come to a jump stop and looked for an open teammate. But he was eager to make a slash play, moving too fast and instead crashed into Garza.
“It’s a typical freshman mistake,” UW assistant coach Dean Oliver said. “You want to make a play and, instead of thinking time and score and situation, you don’t think like that yet. Sometimes you need those mistakes to happen to grow as a player.”
Oliver said Strickland, the son of former NBA point guard Rod Strickland, is hard on himself and eager to correct his mistakes.
The UW coaching staff’s advice for Strickland is simple: Don’t try to do too much, just be solid.
“That’s a big jump for a (freshman) point guard is the thinking part of the game and knowing when to do certain things and knowing your role,” Oliver said. “He’s made great strides. He continues to work hard in practice and soak it in as far as learning from mistakes, whether it’s in practice or in games. He’s getting better. I think all the guys are noticing, he’s really getting better every week.”