As far as coach Greg Gard is concerned, the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team checked off a lot of boxes during its journey to Australia and New Zealand.
An 83-71 victory over the Sydney Kings on Tuesday helped the Badgers finish the trip with a 4-1 record. UW will begin its long trek home on Thursday and Gard will give his players some time off after a long summer that he believes helped his young team take a big step forward.
“Honestly, from a game standpoint and an experience standpoint, I don’t know if I could have asked for much more,” Gard said. “I was able to play a lot of guys in all of the games and use different lineups in every game like I intended, and really got a good feel for where guys are and who’s ready to step into roles that need to be filled and who still has work to do. All in all, it’s been a terrific experience for us.”
Among the positive developments in Gard’s eyes was the balanced scoring displayed by the Badgers. Each game featured a different leading scorer and, notably, none of those players was named Ethan Happ.
The junior center is UW’s only returning starter from last season and will be counted on heavily in 2017-18, but he had plenty of help Down Under.
Sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice averaged a team-high 12.4 points on the trip. He was followed by Happ (12.0), sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl (11.4), freshman guard Brad Davison (11.2) and freshman guard Kobe King (9.2).
“I think that points to so many parts that are developing and growing and so many guys that have potential to be really effective,” Gard said. “Now, how that relays to the regular season, we’ll see.”
Gard said he was impressed how the Badgers responded to their only defeat on the trip. Two days after a 90-89 loss to Melbourne United in which UW wasted a four-point lead in the final minute, the Badgers broke open a close game in the fourth quarter against Sydney.
UW’s bench was upset after a couple questionable calls had allowed the Kings to pull within 66-62, but Davison took over. He scored eight consecutive points, including 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions, to stretch the Badgers’ lead to double digits with under 5 minutes to play.
“Sometimes you learn faster from those situations than you do if you would have sloppily won a game at the end,” Gard said. “We were much more efficient, much more effective on both ends of the floor (Tuesday).”
One of Gard’s biggest questions when the offseason began was how quickly UW’s young backcourt would grow. That group showed a lot of potential on the trip, with each of the top four players leading the team in scoring in one game.
Gard said Trice improved every game and has grown as a leader since the beginning of the summer. Pritzl, meanwhile, started off the trip with a bang by scoring 28 points on 7 of 9 shooting from 3-point range in the opener against the New Zealand Breakers. Trice and Pritzl were a combined 23 of 43 from 3-point range on the trip.
If the five exhibition games are any indication, the two freshman guards will push for significant timein the backcourt. King had games of 18 and 16 points, while Davison was a factor on both ends in all five games and capped off his trip with a game-high 23 points in the win over Sydney.
“I like how they blend together,” Gard said. “We had different guys step up each night in the backcourt.”
The picture in the frontcourt isn’t quite as clear.
Happ was brilliant at times — he finished with 15 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals in the finale — and junior forward Khalil Iverson helped out in a variety of ways. But the battle for the other starting forward spot still appears to be up in the air.
Gard said he saw some positive things from both junior Andy Van Vliet and freshman Nathan Reuvers. Van Vliet went 7 of 16 from 3-point range on the trip, while Reuvers had 10 points and six rebounds in the final game.
All in all, Gard said he’s pleased with the progress UW has shown since summer workouts began two months ago.
“The chemistry and the camaraderie with the group is terrific,” Gard said. “They’ve done everything we asked. They’ve worked and they want to be good, they want to please in terms of their effort. It’s an exciting group.”