MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s basketball coaching staff traditionally leaves the decision to take a redshirt season up to its players. But sometimes, a little prodding goes a long way.
With the case of freshman forward Nate Reuvers, coaches were willing to sacrifice his deficiencies — particularly being outmuscled in the post — for all the other ways in which he could immediately help the team.
That’s why the Badgers took the unusual step of burning Reuvers’ redshirt just five games into the season. Wisconsin’s frontcourt play was largely ineffective, and the addition of Reuvers was borne as much out of necessity as anything else. But the results thus far have been positive, coaches say, even with Reuvers not entirely ready physically for the grind of a college season.
“He knows he belongs out there,” Badgers assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft said. “He doesn’t hang his head. He gets frustrated, but he moves on to next for a freshman as well as anybody other than Brad Davison.
“He’s able to function and move on from getting his butt sealed deep in the post or missing a shot. And there he is flying in trying to grab a rebound. Skinny old Nate. I give him credit. He’s kind of got that mentality to him.”
Reuvers, from Lakeville, Minn., stands 6-foot-10 but weighs just 215 pounds. He is a gangly mass of limbs whose current skill set makes him more apt to fire a 3-pointer than dunk over a big guy down low. Yet Reuvers continues to learn on the fly and improve to become the player Wisconsin desperately needs.
Over six games played, Reuvers is averaging 4.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in 13.3 minutes per outing. His next opportunity comes Wednesday night, when Wisconsin (4-7) hosts Western Kentucky (6-3).
Krabbenhoft said Reuvers struggled early in the semester with the rigors of managing school and basketball. On the court, he fell behind some of the older post players, including forward Charlie Thomas. That helped make it easier for Reuvers to opt for a redshirt season.
“The drill work was hard for him because it’s at you, it’s physical, it’s mano a mano,” Krabbenhoft said. “Nate’s throwing 200 and Charlie and some of those other guys are throwing 250. It’s like, ‘Whoa, he ain’t ready.'”
But as Wisconsin played more full-court 5-on-5 during practice, Krabbenhoft noted the coaching staff saw where Reuvers could thrive. As long as he could rely on his teammates and not solely on 1-on-1 post work, he was fine. His passing, cutting and finishing ability allowed him to “emerge towards the top of the entire team” in some practices, as Krabbenhoft put it.
“We walked off the floor and we go, ‘Holy cow, that guy on the scout team over there, he’s playing as well as anybody we’ve got. Too bad we can’t play him,'” Krabbenhoft said. “And then it was like, ‘Well, sure we can.'”
Reuvers said that before Wisconsin left for a two-game tournament in Kansas City, Mo., against Baylor and UCLA, Badgers coach Greg Gard began inserting him with the first-team for practice reps to help acclimate him. Wisconsin lost both games, and there was a gaping hole with the Badgers’ frontcourt production outside of All-American Ethan Happ. Andy Van Vliet was held to 2 points in 13 minutes during Wisconsin’s 70-65 loss against Baylor.
Aleem Ford replaced Van Vliet in the starting lineup for the UCLA game but was held scoreless in a 72-70 defeat. Van Vliet didn’t score in 2 minutes, and Thomas didn’t score in 5 minutes.
“After we got back from the trip, he really wanted me to play,” Reuvers said of Gard. “I just kind of thought about it for a night and then I said, ‘Yeah, I want to play.'”
It wouldn’t have made much sense for Gard to burn Reuvers’ redshirt and only play him a handful of minutes each game. For that reason, Gard said he wasn’t going to “dip his toe in the water.” Instead, he would have to commit to playing Reuvers consistent minutes. Reuvers has quickly become the first frontcourt option off the bench for Wisconsin.
“We talked about it a lot,” Davison said. “I think you have to totally switch your mindset. Because when you’re sold on scout team, it’s ‘This is what I’m doing, I’m going to lift, I’m going to eat, I’m going to try to put weight on.’ And then that day you’ve got to switch your whole mindset.
“I think the biggest thing was just the mental aspect. But now that he’s gotten a few games under his belt, I think he’s about to become a lot more productive for us. I’m looking forward to the next few games for him.”
Nate Reuvers’ game-by-game stats
Reuvers clearly is a work in progress. On some plays, he shows flashes of a player capable of being dominant. On others, he looks exactly like a freshman trying to figure out how to be in the right place. Wisconsin’s practice Monday night at the Kohl Center offered further illustration of the swings in Reuvers’ game.
He swished an open 3 from just right of the top of the key in half-court 5-on-5 drills. Reuvers then buried a free-throw line jumper in the middle of a zone. But a few possessions later, Reuvers found himself wide open in the middle of the zone again and fired up an off-balance jumper without setting his feet. He missed short.
Gard stopped practice and walked up to Reuvers to provide another teaching point.
“Nate, slow down,” Gard said.
“I turned and shot one before, so I was thinking just turn and shoot it right there,” Reuvers said after practice. “But I probably had enough room to take it and dunk it.”
Reuvers demonstrated how good he could be during Wisconsin’s first two Big Ten games against Ohio State and Penn State. He made all 4 of his field-goal attempts, including 2 3-pointers, and scored 10 points against Ohio State. Reuvers also battled against 6-9, 270-pound forward Kaleb Wesson. Two days later, Reuvers scored 11 points and made 5 of 10 field goal attempts against Penn State to help the Badgers secure a crucial victory.
“It’s like you’re stepping into college basketball,” Reuvers said. “You’re wondering, ‘Am I going to fit in?’ After the first couple games, you’re like, ‘Hey, I can actually battle with these guys. I can actually play with them.’ Looking at that Ohio State game, that guy was like 300 pounds. I think I can manage myself playing against those bigger guys.”
Of course, his play has been a roller-coaster as well. Reuvers missed his first 10 shots over two games against Milwaukee and Virginia. In fact, excluding the Ohio State and Penn State games, he has made only 3 of 23 field goal attempts and averaged 1.8 points.
Reuvers was blocked a couple times during Wisconsin’s 82-63 loss to Marquette on Saturday. He acknowledged that he accidentally shot a layup on the left side of the basket with his right hand.
But what has helped Reuvers to stand out is his willingness to persevere through his mistakes. Gard has talked often about the need for his players to not let missed shots affect their performance. Reuvers recorded 6 rebounds against Milwaukee and took 2 charges at Virginia. Even as he struggled offensively against Marquette, he blocked 3 shots in the first half.
“My high school team, we grew up doing the same kind of defense we play here,” Reuvers said. “I know everyone misses their shots in games. If you let that affect the rest of your game, you’re going to be sitting on the bench for a long time.”
Gard has been thrilled by the manner in which Reuvers has responded.
“He’s done an exceptional job,” Gard said. “I think he’s learned a lot. I think he’s grown. He’s maintained his aggressiveness. Shot selection will continue to get better as he gets more comfortable. But I just like his feel for the game, how he plays, what he’s trying to do offensively and defensively.
“I knew he was going to get knocked around. We knew that was going to happen. He’s going to have a learning curve he’s going to have to go through here. But to be only [six] games into your college career and to be able to go in and be aggressive and be confident, look like he belongs, that’s a great sign. I think he’ll only get better as times goes on.”