MADISON, Wis. ― When Andy Van Vliet rededicated himself this offseason to becoming a better, more serious player in Wisconsin’s basketball program, he hoped it would lead to major minutes and a spot in the regular playing rotation. For two games, everything he worked for appeared to be coming to fruition.
Van Vliet began the season as a starter and scored as well as anybody on the Badgers’ roster. He set career highs of 18 points and 8 rebounds in the season opener against South Carolina State and followed up that performance with 13 points against Yale. At the time, Van Vliet ranked second on the team at 15.5 points per game and seemed as though he could fill the void as an important second front-court scorer to help All-America forward Ethan Happ.
But just as quickly as Van Vliet earned minutes, he lost them. He started two more games against Xavier and Baylor before Badgers coach Greg Gard swapped Van Vliet for Aleem Ford in the starting lineup against UCLA on Nov. 21. Van Vliet has been battling to see court time since.
Van Vliet’s precipitous fall from starter to bench warmer in the span of weeks has been one of the more unusual storylines this season. Everyone in the program recognizes his impressive scoring ability. But the physicality and intensity required to play at this level are areas Van Vliet continues to hone this season.
“There’s certain things within the game that are non-negotiables in this program that physically he’s still working on,” Wisconsin assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft said. “But sometimes you don’t always have to have the biggest, strongest stature to go out there and do the things we need you to do. He’s working every day with the scout team or with Coach Gard at those little things because it clearly isn’t shooting wide-open 3s. He’s pretty good at that.
“That’s not the thing that’s holding him back from playing more minutes. It’s some of those little things that kind of have been pillars of this program. The physicality at which we need to play at in this league against the best teams, you need to be ready to go to war, and he’s still working on some of those things.”
Van Vliet, a 7-foot, 228-pound junior from Antwerp, Belgium, has faced a long climb since arriving on campus in 2015. He didn’t play his first year after the NCAA ruled him ineligible for not enrolling in college within a year of his high school graduation. As a sophomore last season, he played in only 48 minutes and then contemplated transferring. But after introspection and talks with Badgers coaches and staffers, he changed his diet and workout habits to make another push for playing time at Wisconsin.
During Wisconsin’s five-game August exhibition tour of New Zealand and Australia, Van Vliet averaged 6.4 points and 5.4 rebounds. He made 4 of 5 3-pointers in one game and 3 of 5 3-pointers in another. When asked during the team’s local media day in October to identify which forwards impressed him most, Gard quickly mentioned Van Vliet.
“I don’t have to think long about that,” Gard said then. “The steps he’s taken is what you want to see. It’s what you hope to see.”
Van Vliet played 22 minutes against South Carolina State and 21 minutes against Yale. But Van Vliet became a defensive liability against Xavier and Baylor teams that were quicker and more physical. Those teams also negated Van Vliet’s shooting ability. After drilling 6 of 10 3-pointers in his first two games, Van Vliet attempted only 2 3-pointers against Xavier and Baylor, combined, missing both.
Since the Baylor game, Van Vliet has played a total of 16 minutes. He hasn’t played at all in six of Wisconsin’s last 10 games.
“We were never going to be really quite sure until we played against bigger, stronger, more athletic teams that can take away your strengths,” Krabbenhoft said. “And when they take away your strengths, in what other areas can you impact the game? Specifically on defense and getting on the glass and playing physical and being a great defender in different areas.”
Gard provided Van Vliet with another opportunity before Wisconsin played at home against Western Kentucky on Dec. 13. He moved Van Vliet up with the first-teamers in practice that week. When Van Vliet saw his first action in four games, he missed a shot, lost a turnover and committed a foul. He played only 2 minutes against Western Kentucky before exiting the contest for good.
Van Vliet politely declined to answer any questions about his season Wednesday after practice.
Wisconsin is 9-7, including 2-1 in the Big Ten, entering a game at Rutgers at 6 p.m. CT Friday. The Badgers have won five consecutive games, but Gard continues to tinker with his playing rotation. He has used a revolving door at the 4 spot, including Van Vliet, Aaron Moesch, Charlie Thomas and Alex Illikainen.
“What coach looks for is rebounding, toughness, being able to guard someone,” Happ said. “And it’s not an easy position at the 4 by any means. That’s why we’ve had so many guys at that 4 position come in and out because you’re asked to guard different guys. Some guys are bruisers. Some guys can take it off the bounce. Some guys do both. It’s not an easy position to guard.”
During Wisconsin’s 71-61 victory against Indiana on Tuesday night, Gard used Moesch, a former walk-on, as his top reserve. Moesch, who hadn’t played more than 8 minutes this season, played 25 minutes against the Hoosiers. The fact Moesch played so much, while Van Vliet didn’t even enter the game, shows how far Van Vliet has plummeted in the rotation. But Moesch and his teammates also see that Gard is willing to reward players who work to improve in practice.
“This year has obviously not gone the way he wanted,” Moesch said of Van Vliet. “But I think he’s showing things on the scout team. He still comes to practice every day and works hard. I think if he continues to do that, things will change.
“I’m not a coach. But that’s what coaches preach is if you come to practice every day, work hard, he’s looking for guys that he has to say to himself, ‘I have to play him.’ I think we all kind of have that mindset on the scout team that we’ve got to work hard and make ourselves be that guy that coach says, ‘I’ve got to put him in the game because he’s playing so damn hard.'”
Wisconsin has 15 regular-season games remaining. And although Van Vliet is buried on the bench, Krabbenhoft insists there is still time remaining for him to make an impact.
“You never know,” Krabbenhoft said. “That’s why you’ve got to prepare every day and be ready. I think he’s had the right approach through all the struggles that I know he’s going through, dealing with this. He’s brought it every day. He’s had some really good days where he’s continuing to get better.”