Wisconsin easily dispatched Illinois 75-50 on Friday night at the Kohl Center to break a three-game losing streak. The Badgers improved to 10-10 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten.
Here are five things we learned about Wisconsin from the victory:
Nate Reuvers is going to be a force in the Big Ten down the road
In a perfect world, Reuvers would have taken his redshirt season to gain muscle in time for his first college action in 2018-19. But this season has been far from perfect for the Badgers, which is why he was forced to burn that redshirt after five games. The more Reuvers plays, the more that decision looks like a smart move.
Reuvers recorded 5 blocks in 16 minutes against Illinois, and his ability to impact the game defensively has been his greatest asset early in his career. Badgers coach Greg Gard praised Reuvers for the manner in which he was able to defend ball screens to stymie the Illini.
“His progression from late October when we scrimmaged Missouri when I couldn’t keep him on the floor to where he is now, I don’t know if I’ve seen a kid come that far in that short of time,” Gard said. “And the biggest thing he’s figured out is how we need to defend, specifically ball screens. …
“He has that uncanny ability. He learns really quick. He picks up on things. He’s a terrific listener. He understands concepts and he’s figured that part out in terms of what we do off ball screens, and he’s got length. He’s quick off the floor. He covers a lot of ground, and he’s just a pup yet, too. But we haven’t had a rim protector like that in a while and he’s obviously just beginning. He’s got a lot of things to get better at, but his instincts are terrific, and his work ethic is really good.”
Reuvers leads Wisconsin with 21 blocked shots despite playing less than half as many minutes as forwards Ethan Happ and Aleem Ford. Reuvers’ offensive game will continue to grow, but his tenacity is special.
D’Mitrik Trice can’t come back soon enough
Trice practiced Wednesday for the first time since he underwent right foot surgery in December. He wasn’t cleared to play in time for the Illinois game Friday, but it seems as though his return is imminent. That’s a big deal for this Wisconsin team, which has been forced to rely heavily on Brad Davison to eat up minutes at the point guard spot.
Davison picked up his second foul midway through the first half Friday. Gard obviously didn’t feel confident with putting freshman walk-on Walt McGrory into the game after he turned the ball over twice in 2 minutes against Purdue on Tuesday. That meant Wisconsin played with two shooting guards (Brevin Pritzl and T.J. Schlundt) and three forwards (Khalil Iverson, Happ and Alex Illikainen or Reuvers).
Happ has played point-forward this season to help spell Davison, but that doesn’t seem like the best long-term solution. While Happ is a solid ball handler and passer, he does his dirty work in the post. With Happ and Davison out during the second half, Iverson was thrust into the point guard role. Iverson showed some decent handle and ability to create for others. He also finished the game with 3 turnovers.
Not having a true point guard didn’t hurt Wisconsin against a bad Illinois team. But that’s a difficult proposition against the upper-echelon teams in the league, which can take advantage of that problem. Even if Trice can give Wisconsin 10 minutes, it would help take pressure off everybody else in the playing rotation.
There has been some discussion among Wisconsin fans about whether it would make sense for Trice to take a redshirt season if he wasn’t healthy enough to return until February. But Trice could be healthy enough to play by next week, and there are still 11 regular-season games remaining. Davison has played with an injured left shoulder for most of the season and isn’t even a true point guard. So Trice’s return will be a welcomed addition.
Brevin Pritzl can be the consistent third scorer Wisconsin needs
Pritzl’s performances have spanned the spectrum this season. He has been held scoreless three times, but he also is capable of producing some nice scoring punch from the outside. He was excellent against Illinois in finishing with 16 points and burying 3 of 6 3-point attempts.
Pritzl struggled during Wisconsin’s previous 3 losses from long range, connecting on 3 of 16 3-pointers. But he also has now scored in double figures in five of the last six games. The Badgers have needed someone else to emerge as a consistent scoring threat to complement Happ and Davison. It has taken longer than many would have liked, but Pritzl certainly is capable of being that guy.
“I just got in the gym, made 500 a day, just something easy,” Pritzl said. “I think it helped a little bit. I got a little off rhythm late. Ethan hit me on a couple of good ones I should’ve knocked down. But I’ll get him back for those.”
Alex Illikainen is playing important minutes to help the front court
For most of the season, it appeared that Illikainen wouldn’t have any impact on the Badgers’ fortunes. Before Wisconsin faced Purdue on Tuesday, Illikainen had played a total of 58 minutes all season. But over the last two games against Purdue and Illinois, he has been on the floor for 38 minutes.
Illikainen showed real grit battling Purdue big man Isaac Haas on Tuesday. He also provided some scoring with 5 points and a made 3-pointer in 16 minutes. He played 22 minutes against Illinois and made another 3-pointer.
No one is asking Illikainen to be a big-time stat stuffer for Wisconsin, but he is talented enough to contribute significant minutes to a front court in need of help. Gard has tried to find consistency from Illikainen, Charlie Thomas and Andy Van Vliet. Each of those players has had an opportunity, and now it’s Illikainen’s turn.
Andy Van Vliet’s fall has been astounding
What does it say about where Van Vliet stands in Gard’s eyes when he can’t even find his way on the court for mop-up duty of a blowout victory? That’s two consecutive games in which Gard left two players in warm-ups after he emptied his bench. Van Vliet didn’t play in either of those games.
Van Vliet’s fall from starter to benchwarmer this season has been one of the more interesting and unforeseen developments. He averaged 15.5 points per game through the first two contests but lost his starting spot after four games. His offensive skill has never been the problem. His issues stem from defensive effort and the overall attitude necessary to play. You can read more about it in a story I wrote a couple of weeks ago.
Gard moved Van Vliet back into the first-team rotation briefly during practice before the Western Kentucky game. But he committed a turnover, missed a shot and committed a foul in 2 minutes and has hardly been heard from since. Van Vliet hasn’t played more than 5 minutes in a game since Nov. 20. At this stage, it’s difficult to believe he’ll earn another chance this season to contribute in a meaningful way.