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Wisconsin Basketball Position Preview: Bigs

This is a preview of Wisconsin Basketball’s bigs, which consists of power forwards and centers. This is the third article of a three-part series. The first two are linked below the article.

Key Losses

Nigel Hayes

Hayes was talked about in-depth in the wing section because he primarily started at small forward last season. But his more natural position was definitely power forward. He was a valuable second option in the post, and he had a good connection with Ethan Happ in high-low sets. The Badgers will miss his defense, rebounding, and scoring down low.

Vitto Brown

Vitto, or 3tto Brown was a sharpshooting stretch four. He hit 32% of his three-point tries as a senior, a sharp regression from 40% his junior season. But opponents always had to respect Brown’s shot, which created more room for Hayes and Ethan Happ to operate. Brown also provided serviceable defense and rebounding, although he rarely provided anything besides turnovers when he tried to create his own shot.

Key Returners

Ethan Happ

You already know about Happ. As a Second Team All-American, Happ became a household name during his junior season. His footwork and ability to finish around the rim made him one of the best post players in the country. He is also one of the best defenders in the conference. With Hayes and Bronson Koenig gone, he will have more pressure on him not only to carry the team, but also to provide leadership. He will likely see a lot of double-teams until the players around him show they can’t be left open. Happ is Wisconsin’s biggest key to success this season. If they want to keep their NCAA tournament streak alive, he is going to need to be an excellent scorer, leader, and passer out of double teams. He has the potential to be all of that, and more.

Andy Van Vliet

As a sophomore last season, Van Vliet played 48 total minutes in just 14 games. But he has reportedly taken a huge jump in both his play and mentality. Now, the 7-footer will likely start alongside Happ in the frontcourt. On offense, he appears to be the perfect complement to Happ. His specialty is his three-point shooting, which should create more space for Happ to operate. As the tallest player on the team, he should also be an asset on the boards. While Van Vliet isn’t a great post scorer yet, that isn’t what the team needs him to be. But they do need him to step up defensively. While he has improved himself physically since he arrived in Madison, he is still skinny and weak for a Big Ten big man. In order to stay on the court, he needs to prove he can defend at a high level.

Charles Thomas

Thomas is a very intriguing breakout possibility for the Badgers. At 6’8 and 255 pounds, Thomas is built like a tank. His strength makes him a good interior defender and rebounder. While he has played some meaningful minutes for the Badgers, he has never been an effective scorer. He shot only 39% from the field last season, which isn’t very good for a big man. However, early returns seem to suggest that his post game has improved. He also drilled a three-pointer in Wisconsin’s Red-White scrimmage. If he can carry that into the regular season, he will likely be a reliable backup for both Happ and Van Vliet.

Khalil Iverson

Iverson will likely start at small forward, which was why he was in the wing section. But Wisconsin has a lot of talented guards. D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, Brevin Pritzl, and Kobe King are four of Wisconsin’s best players. In order to get them on the floor as much possible, Greg Gard may employ some four-guard lineups. In such scenarios, Iverson could step in and play the four. While he is slightly undersized, he athleticism more than makes up for. In fact, he may actually be a better fit insider than on the perimeter, especially on offense.

Alex Illikainen

Illikainen was projected to be yet another great Wisconsin shooting big man coming out of high school, but two years later, he hasn’t came to close living up to expectations. He played limited minutes over the last few seasons, and despite having some decent stretches of games, he never looked comfortable on the court. On offense, he is way too hesitant. He constantly passes up open looks that he has proven in the past he can hit. He is nothing more than an average defender and rebounder. At this point in his career, he needs to take a big jump. Otherwise, he will likely be a fringe rotation player and situational backup like he was last season.

Aaron Moesch

Moesch, the only senior on the roster, was awarded a scholarship in outstanding fashion prior to the Australian trip. It remains to be seen whether he’ll earn any real playing time. Last season, he averaged just two minutes per game. But on a young team, Gard may choose to bring in the veteran. At the start of his sophomore season, Gard used Moesch in games to help a young team better understand the swing offense. Something similar wouldn’t be surprising this season.

Key Newcomers

Nathan Reuvers

True freshman Nate Reuvers was the prize of Wisconsin’s heralded three-man recruiting class. At 6’10 with the ability to shoot the ball, he was a 247 Consensus top-75 prospect. However, big men usually take longer to develop than guards. Reuvers still needs to put on quite a bit of weight before he is ready to play at this level. For that reason, there is a good chance he uses a redshirt this season. But if he doesn’t, he likely won’t earn meaningful minutes until the second half of the season.

Projected Rotation

C: Happ 30 min, Thomas 10 min

PF: Van Vliet 17 min, Illikainen 7 min, Thomas 6 min, Iverson 8 min, Moesch 2

Overall Expectations

Ethan Happ is a star, and will continue to be a star. That is the only thing we know for certain about this group. If Van Vliet is good enough on defense to stay on the court and space the floor, and Thomas and Illikainen can take a big step, this frontcourt has an exceptionally high ceiling. But nobody knows what will happen. Van Vliet, Thomas, Illikainen, and Moesch averaged a combined five points per game last season. They all have shown promise at various points, but the lack of experience is evident. There are just so many question marks. 

Other Previews

Guards

Wings

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