Badgers men's basketball seniors mentoring 'invaluable' for 7-player freshman class
The Badgers began initial preparations earlier this month for the 2020-21 season, a season that is up in the air because of the COVID-19 pandemic. NCAA officials said a decision will be made by mid-September about whether the season will start on time.
Micah Potter remembers what it was like to be a rookie on a college campus.
"Being a freshman coming in," he said, "the lights sometimes can be bright and you're kind of intimidated by the older guys."
Potter, who began his career at Ohio State but is now a fifth-year senior with the University of Wisconsin men's basketball program, is doing everything he can to make sure that isn't the case for his newest teammates.
The Badgers began initial preparations earlier this month for the 2020-21 season, a season that is up in the air because of the COVID-19 pandemic. NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said earlier this week that a decision will be made by mid-September about whether the season will start on time.
Even with that uncertainty hovering over them, the beginning of summer workouts was a welcomed first step for Potter and Aleem Ford, the only other UW veteran on campus.
For UW coach Greg Gard, it was his first chance to begin working with one of the program's more unique rosters in recent memory.
The Badgers, who return almost their entire rotation from a team that earned a share of the Big Ten title last season, are experienced. The heart of the team is a group of seven seniors that includes Potter, Ford, D'Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, Nate Reuvers, Trevor Anderson and Walt McGrory.
But there's also plenty of youth on the roster. The group of seven incoming freshmen includes five players on scholarship — Lorne Bowman, twins Johnny and Jordan Davis, Ben Carlson and Steven Crowl — along with walk-ons Carter Gilmore and Justin Taphorn.
That accounts for 14 of the 17 players on the roster. The remaining players — Tyler Wahl, Joe Hedstrom and walk-on Carter Higginbottom — are sophomores.
"And that was intentional," said Gard, who is set to begin his fifth full season as UW's coach and his 20th season in the program. "Through my whole career, you look back and a really good group of seniors walk out, you usually have a large group of freshmen coming in. You always say, 'Man I wish this group of freshmen could have spent nine months under the wings of the older guys.'
"I felt was important to help transition them and prepare them. Regardless of how much they play or how much they don't play, it's being around those guys every day, the work habits, the culture, the language, the locker room, just how they go about their business every single day. And each is a little different. But the older guys understand what it takes to win a championship. I think that's invaluable for younger guys to be able to watch."
During a Zoom call this offseason, Gard stressed to the seniors the important role they'll play while serving as a bridge between the present and the future of the program.
"He talked to us about how we got the culture back last year of how we want Wisconsin basketball to be," Potter said. "He said we want to put these freshmen in a situation to continue to improve it going forward. He put the (onus) on us to really work with the freshmen on showing them how things are done, how to do things the right way and in a championship-winning way."
Gard gave his veterans the option of remaining at home or returning to campus early to join the freshmen for summer workouts. Ford and Potter took the latter option, while the rest of the returning players are planning to return to Madison by the start of the fall semester.
According to a team official, the decisions on whether to return now or later was based on each individual's situation and how much access the player had to gyms and workout facilities at home.
That makes Ford and Potter a tag-team welcoming committee, if you will. Both players said they embrace the opportunity to be mentors to the freshmen.
"The relationships you build with people off the court is the best way to be a mentor, letting them know that you're someone they can turn to," Ford said.
Potter and Ford said it was particularly important to make the freshmen feel comfortable because of the odd situation they found themselves in during their first few days on campus. After players reported, they were tested for COVID-19 and had to quarantine while awaiting their results.
"This is the first time a lot of these guys are away from home and they had to quarantine, so they did nothing but sit in their room the entire time," Potter said. "It's a hard situation for a lot of them, so being able to be a guy who can kind of explain things and be there for them is important.
"Whatever I need to do is what I want to do to help get them used to being on campus."
Ford's first impression of the freshmen as a whole was positive.
"I think it's a really good group," Ford said. "They've been working. They ask questions, they want to learn. I can tell that they're excited to be here. I'm excited to see what they bring."
When everyone returns to campus, there will be more veteran voices for the freshmen to hear. The payout from that mentorship process could pay dividends for years to come.
"Hopefully, that will wear off on them," Potter said, "so they can carry that tradition and that work ethic into the future for the freshmen that come in below them."
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