MADISON, Wis. — No. 15 Xavier broke open a tie game late to pull away for an 80-70 victory against Wisconsin on Thursday night at the Kohl Center. The Musketeers, who reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament last season, showcased their experience down the stretch.
Here are five things we learned about Wisconsin from the game:
1. Brad Davison needs to play as much as possible
Brad Davison was tremendous during the first half, when he tallied 11 points and 4 steals. His defense and energy is contagious, and he possesses a scoring punch and fearlessness that is rare for a freshman. Davison finished with 12 points in 28 minutes, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether he might enter the starting lineup at some point this season. Even if he doesn’t, it is quite clear that he needs to be on the floor to provide toughness and physicality.
Brevin Pritzl has improved as a scorer and tallied 13 points in 16 minutes. But his defense is not on the same level as Davison, and that was evident early when Pritzl’s man repeatedly scored at the rim. At Wisconsin, playing strong defense is a good way to remain on the floor.
If there’s one player in the starting lineup whose minutes figure to be affected by Davison, it would be Pritzl. Although Davison can play point guard, D’Mitrik Trice’s leadership is invaluable. Even though Trice made only 4 of 14 field goals, he still played a team-high 35 minutes.
“If you’ve been around Brad Davison, you understand these are the type of games he flourishes in,” Badgers coach Greg Gard said. “He likes being physical, he likes getting on the floor. He made a lot of good things happen. Maybe I should’ve played Brad even more.”
2. There is too much inconsistency from the Badgers’ regular rotation players
Wisconsin has a young team, and there are bound to be off nights for players as they figure out their roles. That development is not unexpected this early in the season. Still, that’s part of the reason Wisconsin wasn’t able to spring an upset against an extremely good Xavier team.
Forward Andy Van Vliet, who had been Wisconsin’s second-leading scorer at 15.5 points per game, was held to 1 point and 1 rebound in 11 minutes. Freshman guard Kobe King has not been as assertive offensively as he was during the team’s two exhibition games, when he led the Badgers in scoring. King didn’t score in 12 minutes Thursday.
Van Vliet played only 48 minutes in 14 games last season, and Gard noted this is the first time he has had “accountability and responsibility placed upon his shoulders, and he’s adjusting to it. It’s just a different mindset that when you are in possession-for-possession games that you have to have and when you’re giving up extra possessions, that hurts.”
Gard said Van Vliet has progressed quite a bit even in the past three months since Wisconsin’s five-game August exhibition tour of New Zealand and Australia. But Van Vliet obviously still has a long way to go to be consistently effective in big games. He has the shooting stroke to be an X-factor from the perimeter offensively and the length to impact the game defensively.
3. Ethan Happ must perform at an All-America level for Wisconsin to beat the best teams
Wisconsin showed great fortitude near the end of the half, when the Badgers used a 9-0 run with Happ on the bench to enter halftime tied at 34-34. But this is Happ’s team, and he’s the one player that has to show up every night for the Badgers to have a chance against the toughest teams on their schedule.
Happ has been excellent early this season. He leads the team in points (17.7), rebounds (8.7) and assists (3.7). Against Xavier on Thursday, he finished with 21 points, 8 assists and 4 rebounds and was assertive early when the Musketeers brought multiple defenders his way.
“I always want to play my best game,” Happ said. “But I definitely made some mistakes this game, so obviously it wasn’t my best. … There’s so many different guys that come in and step up that even if I’m on an off night, I think we always have a chance.”
Happ was a third-team Associated Press All-American last season. And despite the focus being on him this season, he has lived up to the hype. Xavier coach Chris Mack called him “one of the best post players in the entire country.” Musketeers guard J.P. Macura agreed.
“We really focused on trying to get the ball out of his hands,” Macura said. “He’s one of the best players in the country and when he does his quick spin, it’s hard to guard.”
Wisconsin has shown it has more offensive firepower than just Happ, but he is the straw that stirs the drink. And the Badgers will need plenty more of that in the upcoming Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, Mo., against Baylor and then either Creighton or UCLA.
4. Greg Gard continues to tinker with his front-court rotation
At this stage, it’s become apparent that forward Aleem Ford is the front-court player Gard trusts the most off the bench. Ford played 29 minutes and finished with 6 points and 2 rebounds. He has a nice 3-point stroke and hit two clutch shots from long-range against Xavier. The first came with 54 seconds remaining in the first half and tied the score at 34-34. He also buried a 3 off a kick out from Happ to tie the score again at 64-64 with 4:01 remaining in the game.
Gard played Charlie Thomas and Alex Illikainen five minutes each, and neither did much on the stat sheet. Thomas recorded 1 rebound, while Illikainen had 1 rebound and 1 assist. Those players essentially serve as stopgaps until Happ can return. Happ played 30 minutes Thursday.
Any offensive production Wisconsin receives from Thomas and Ilikainen or even fifth-year senior Aaron Moesch will be considered a bonus. But if those players can simply fulfill their roles in limited minutes, it will keep the Badgers in games.
5. This was a great learning experience for Wisconsin
This game represented a huge litmus test for Wisconsin. Xavier was ranked No. 15 in the country and featured guard Trevon Bluiett, who entered the game averaging 25.5 points per game. Ultimately, Xavier won because its team has experience in tough, late-game moments, and most of Wisconsin’s players simply don’t at this stage. Bluiett buried a pair of 3-pointers in the final two minutes to break open a 66-66 tie. Bluiett finished with 25 points.
Xavier used a 10-0 run to take an insurmountable 76-66 lead. During that stretch, Happ missed a layup, Davison missed a layup, Trice missed a jumper and Davison missed a 3-pointer. By the time Trice converted a jumper off an offensive rebound with 29 seconds left, Xavier led 76-68.
“I think every game, every practice is a learning experience, especially for us young guys because it’s all a bunch of new experiences,” Davison said. “When you’re playing with teammates like Ethan and (D’Mitrik) that really calm you down, coaches have a lot of condience in us at the end of the game. It was a lot of fun, great experience. I’m looking forward to learning from it and moving on from this.”
Wisconsin’s players certainly weren’t happy with the result. But they hung tough against a Xavier team that had scored 101 points in each of its first two games this season.
“I feel like a coach, but I’m just really proud of the guys, to be honest,” Happ said. “I’m very proud of how we responded. We got down a couple times and just came right back. Got stops.
“Even when I was out, Alex came in played well for a stretch. That’s kind of when Brad had his run there, too. It’s a game of inches, and they made more plays down the stretch, but I’m really proud of how our team played tonight.