The Bigs group at Wisconsin has the most experience at the NCAA level of any group on the team, with three juniors vying for playing time behind Third Team All-American Ethan Happ. Who will be the player to take control of the minutes up for grab?

#22 Ethan Happ (Junior)

 2016-17 Statistics @ Wisconsin

14.0 (PPG) / 9.0 (RPG) / 2.8 (APG) / 1.8 (SPG) / 1.2 (BPG)

Ethan Happ moves into an important role as the leader of the Badgers with the graduation of four seniors. Happ showed last year that he can really do it all leading the Badgers in rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. It will be a different scenario for Happ in his junior season being the top returning scorer and not having proven talent around him. The benefit for the Badgers is that there may not be a better passing big man in the NCAA than Ethan Happ. Happ made his teammates better last season drawing defenders and being able to find the open man for three or a cut to the basket. As he seems like a quiet guy, it is important for Happ for break out of his shell and take control of the locker room. The scoring and passing ability for Happ will be there this season, but Happ needs to trust his young team to make the right play and convert when he passes the ball to them.

#15 Charles Thomas IV (Junior)

2016-17 Statistics @ Wisconsin

2.2 (PPG) / 1.3 (RPG) / 38.9% (FG%) / 28 (GP) / 6.3 (MPG)

Charlie is in an interesting position as a junior because of his largely diminished role in the postseason last season. Although many can look to it as Coach Gard trusting his older players, there is some merit in the argument that he believed Thomas wasn’t ready to compete when all was on the line. All that aside, Thomas does have a skill set that could be helpful in the 2017-18 campaign. Thomas’ ability to clear out space with his wide frame will be helpful grabbing rebounds and getting into transition breaks. Not known to many people, Thomas shot six threes last season in a limited role.  However, if this is a part of his game he is working on improving during the season, it could be the factor that leads to more impactful minutes.

#25 Alex Illikanen (Junior)

2016-17 Statistics @ Wisconsin

1.3 (PPG) / 1.5 (RPG) / 32.4% (FG%) / 27 (GP) / 8.3 (MPG)

Junior Alex Illikanen gained experience from playing time in a reserve spot in the Badgers rotation in his two years in Madison. This season for Alex will be crucial with Coach Gard prepared to increase his minutes with this new wave of talent. Illikanen has a special skill set to contribute to the squad this season with this height at 6’9 combined with his smooth shooting stroke. Alex hasn’t been able to truly show himself off in an extensive role in Madison, but he can cause problems defensively for opponents with his sneaky ability to get to the rim. The Badgers coaching staff needs to put Alex in situations where he can use his above-average speed to run off screens in hopes of getting an open jump shot.

#11 Andy Van Vilet (Junior)

 2016-17 Statistics @ Wisconsin

1.3 (PPG) / 1.4 (RPG) / 35.3% (FG%) / 14 (GP) / 3.4 (MPG)

The junior from Belgium is prepared to make a jolt on the rotation for the 2017 season after playing in a minimal role last season. Van Vilet’s skill-set as a seven-foot left handed shooter is something not usually seen in the NCAA, but that can work to the Badgers advantage. Andy can create mismatches anywhere on the court, which could fit well with defenses switching on screens. Andy needs to be more physically imposing when he gets the ball using his size to create space for a jumper or to use his length to finish at the rim. There are a lot of players fighting for minutes in the rotation, so it will be important for Andy to make himself very noticeable during games.

#35 Nate Reuvers (Freshman)

 2016-17 Statistics @ Lakeville North High School

25.6 (PPG) / 12.3 (RPG) / 3.5 (BPG)

The Badgers get another top prospect from Minnesota in big man Nate Reuvers. There is a lot of potential with Reuvers, a long 6’10 with a decent shooting touch and good footwork in the post, he has the skills to make impact in years to come. Don’t expect Nate to get much playing time this season as he needs to fill out his frame before he’s ready to compete nightly in the Big Ten. The excitement for Reuvers should be based heavily on the remarkable transformations of recent Badger bigs Frank Kaminsky and Ethan Happ. Both of those players transformed from skilled lanky bigs to NBA caliber players by gaining muscle and experience in the Badgers system. Nate needs to be patient and buy in to the system to become great in a Wisconsin uniform.

2017-18 Outlook

Ethan Happ was the Swiss Army knife of the Badgers last season who led the team in rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, and finished .5 short of the scoring lead. Happ is now the face of Wisconsin Basketball and won’t be sneaking up on any opponents this season. The beauty of Happ’s emergence as the leader is proven by his elite passing ability. He is arguably the best passing big man in the NCAA, and with the Badgers’ offensive scheme that relies on hard cuts to the basket, Happ is the perfect fit to elevate all of his teammates on the floor. Behind Ethan, there are many minutes to be fought for between the three junior bigs. It will depend who can make an impact scoring and keeping the same level of play when Happ is out of the game. Each player has their specialty in scoring, and if I was Coach Gard, I would use that to my advantage and tailor my rotation of the bigs on a game-by-game basis. Doing a situational rotation can be helpful for a young team trying to find an identity, because it can allow inexperienced players to thrive in a situation where their skills can be most effective. There will be ample opportunities to learn who can thrive when the pressure is on for Wisconsin. Figuring out who can thrive in each situation behind Happ will be extremely important in order to have the right matchups on the floor when the games matter during March Madness.

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