After doing an interview at midcourt, Andy Van Vliet did a spin move away from the camera and walked away with a big smile on his face.
As he was leaving the court, the junior forward on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team stopped to sign autographs for some kids and gave one of them his towel.
All of this – the attention, the postgame joy – felt new to Van Vliet, but it was deserved. In his first career start Friday night, Van Vliet registered career highs with 18 points and eight rebounds to help the Badgers open the 2017-18 season with an 85-50 victory over South Carolina State at the Kohl Center.
“Tonight felt good,” said Van Vliet, who played 48 minutes in 14 games last season after sitting out the 2015-16 campaign due to an NCAA eligibility issue. “I was a little bit nervous before, which I think is normal. But it felt good to be on the floor and, after two years of not really playing, to finally be playing in the Kohl Center. It’s a blessing.”
Junior center Ethan Happ led the Badgers (1-0) with 20 points and 11 rebounds, while the two members of UW’s starting backcourt also had solid season debuts. Sophomore Brevin Pritzl scored a career-high 17 points in his first start, while sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice added 13 points.
The Badgers went 10 of 23 from 3-point range, with Van Vliet canning four of his five attempts from beyond the arc.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster for him and his game,” Trice said. “He’s developed so much over the offseason. Now, you can see that he can stretch the floor and lot of teams will key in on that. But he can also face up towards the basket in the paint. He’s definitely becoming an all-around skilled player.”
At the risk of being a buzz kill, UW coach Greg Gard was blunt in his assessment of Van Vliet’s play.
“I look at Andy’s numbers – I know he has 18 and eight – and I didn’t think he played very well,” Gard said.
Gard pulled Van Vliet 2 minutes into the second half and replaced him with redshirt freshman Aleem Ford. That started a revolving door at the “4” spot, with junior Alex Illikainen and senior Aaron Moesch also getting looks at that spot as UW struggled to put the game out of reach.
Gard’s biggest gripe, with Van Vliet and the others, was that they were letting missed shots on one end of the court affect their play on the other end.
“The one that probably does it (better) than any, in terms of impacts the game when he doesn’t score, is Ethan. Why does he do that? He’s the most experienced guy,” Gard said. “Other guys are starting to get it and figure it out. But we’ve got to get more of the masses into that mind-set.”
South Carolina State (0-1), which got 13 points from senior guard Donte Wright, was within 58-47 near the midway point of the second half after a short jumper by David Bottenberg.
But UW answered with a 20-2 run that included eight points by Van Vliet, including 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions.
“It’s hard to compete against a 7-footer than can really shoot the ball from deep like that,” Bulldogs coach Murray Garvin said. “There were a couple shots that we were there but with his high release, on our end, there’s not much you can do about that but be there and compete on the shot.”
Happ, who didn’t officially register a field-goal attempt in the Badgers’ exhibition finale against UW-Stout, drew a lot of attention whether the Bulldogs were playing zone or man-to-man defense. South Carolina State sent a lot of double-teams against Happ in the post, but he either beat them with a spin move to set up easy baskets for himself or found his open teammates floating around the perimeter.
Trice and Pritzl each made three 3-pointers. The two of them, along with Van Vliet, combined to go 10 of 17 from beyond the arc.
“He makes all of our jobs easier by making those double teams less effective against him,” Pritzl said of Happ, who now has 21 double-doubles in his career. “That makes for a lot easier opportunities for all of us around the arc. I think he just simplifies the game for us a little more.”
UW returns to action on Sunday with a game against visiting Yale. For Van Vliet, it’s another chance to show what he can do after spending most of his first two seasons with the Badgers watching from the bench.
“It feels good to have a game like that,” Van Vliet said. “Obviously, there’s still stuff to work (on). Coach has been on me for defensive reasons, and I know I have to work on that and be more aggressive. But I feel good about tonight and finally being on the floor.”