University of Wisconsin men’s basketball recruits typically follow a well-worn path — commit, learn from the bench, grow into a major contributor by junior year, and graduate after a four- or five-year career that saw every year end in the NCAA Tournament.
It was different for the members of the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes, who saw their paths divert around coaching changes, transfers, a losing season and adversity rarely faced in the Wisconsin program this century.
Three members of those classes — Ethan Happ, Khalil Iverson and Charles Thomas IV — played their final game at the Kohl Center Thursday night, a 65-45 win over Iowa that assured the Badgers of a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten Conference a year after their 16-year top-four streak came to an end.
Happ was the first of the trio to step on campus, joining the program in 2014 (along with walk-ons Matt Ferris and T.J. Schlundt) and taking a ride with Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and company all the way to the national championship game.
But Happ redshirted that season, essentially making him part of a 2015 recruiting class that appeared deep with Iverson, Thomas, Alex Illikainen, Brevin Pritzl and Andy Van Vliet. The class was heavily anticipated, as back-to-back Final Four appearances had Badgers fans thinking big with the ensuing recruiting classes.
The group had a bit of everything — a four-star sharpshooting guard in Pritzl; an undersized athletic freak in Iverson; a high-scoring, four-star forward in Illikainen; a 7-foot shooter from Belgium in Van Vliet; a three-star college-ready body in Thomas; and Happ, a do-it-all big man who had already prompted then-coach Bo Ryan to say he would be “one of the better players ever to wear the Badgers uniform.”
Now, three are playing out their senior years, one is a redshirt junior, one has transferred and one is done with basketball.
An up-and-down path
The group has seen plenty of success over the past four years. Happ grew into an All-American while the team made three NCAA Tournaments and reached the Sweet 16 twice, and is one win away.
But it wasn’t all roses for Ryan’s last six scholarship recruits, who waded through the most upheaval the steady Wisconsin program has faced in recent memory.
It started immediately, as Van Vliet lost his freshman season due to eligibility issues since he didn’t enroll in college within one year of graduating high school. Pritzl was hit after appearing in just one game, suffering a foot injury that forced him to redshirt and plagued him throughout the early portion of his college career.
The whole program got turned upside down when Ryan retired just 12 games into the 2015-16 season. The Badgers stumbled to a 7-5 start and Ryan was out, retiring in December and giving way to interim coach Greg Gard. The losing continued, as the Badgers dropped four of their first five Big Ten games to fall to 9-9. But then something flipped and the Badgers ended up where they always had, winning 11 of their last 13 regular-season games to finish tied for third in the Big Ten, then reached the Sweet 16 before a tough loss to Notre Dame.
Happ was one of the rare Badgers to start as a freshman, while Illikainen, Iverson and Thomas all played regular minutes on a team that had lost four starters from the previous year’s Final Four squad. It was seemingly setting the Badgers up well for a loaded frontcourt in the future.
However, those minutes may have come at a price, as the freshmen were asked to contribute in small roles rather than work to develop their skills. This group never blossomed offensively like Wisconsin players typically do. Van Vliet and Pritzl were the only ones to ever show a semblance of a jump shot, and they entered the program with that being their primarily skill. Illikainen, Iverson and Thomas never looked completely comfortable on offense, while Van Vliet looked like an offensive contributor but couldn’t stay on the floor defensively.
Those shortcomings began to show in a 2016-17 season that brought high expectations, as Gard had the full-time job and the four-player senior class of Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter were back to lead an experienced team that expected to be buoyed by the large sophomore class.
Happ did his job, averaging 14.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game on the way to earning third-team All-America honors. Iverson played 15.2 minutes per game for his defense and occasional electrifying offensive moments, but the sophomores outside of Happ plateaued.
Still, 2016-17 was the prototypical Badgers season, as they tied for second in the Big Ten and ended the year with heartbreak — Florida’s Chris Chiozza hit an overtime buzzer-beater to end Wisconsin’s run in the Sweet 16.
The shine wore off in 2017-18. With walk-ons Aaron Moesch, Ferris and Schlundt as the only seniors, the juniors were the veterans on the first Wisconsin team to miss the NCAA Tournament since 1999. The Badgers went 15-18, including 7-11 in Big Ten play to finish ninth, UW’s lowest finish in 20 years.
The junior jump never happened. Illikainen, Thomas and Van Vliet’s careers stalled out as they couldn’t earn significant playing time despite a severe lack of frontcourt depth.
The group began to split. Van Vliet transferred after the season to William and Mary, where he is sitting out this year before playing out his senior season in the Colonial Athletic Association. In 30 career games at Wisconsin, Van Vliet averaged 2.5 points and 1.4 rebounds per game while shooting 48.4 percent from behind the 3-point line.
Illikainen also left before taking the court as a senior, leaving the program on Nov. 12 after not playing in a season-opening win over Coppin State. The 6-foot-9 forward from Minnesota finished his career with averages of 1.5 points and 1.3 rebounds in 85 games played. All of his career highs came as a freshman, when he shot 41.3 percent from the field and averaged 2.2 points, 1.5 rebounds, 0.4 assists and 9.8 minutes per game in 33 games.
Back on track
With Pritzl now a redshirt junior, that left Happ, Iverson and Thomas as the seniors on a 2018-19 team that needed to show that 2017-18 was a fluke. The group has led the 21st-ranked Badgers through a bounce-back season, as they are 21-9 and in fourth place in the Big Ten entering Sunday’s regular-season finale at Ohio State. A win would give the Badgers sole possession of fourth place in the conference and a double bye in the Big Ten tournament. A new NCAA Tournament streak is certain to start once brackets are released on March 17.
It’s also been a banner year individually, as Happ is heading toward another All-America season. The 6-foot-10 center is leading the Badgers in points (17.9), rebounds (10.2), assists (4.6) and steals (1.1). He has become the Badgers’ all-time leading rebounder and is in the top three in program history in points, assists, blocks and steals.
Iverson has also been playing his best basketball. The 6-5 Ohio native is in the midst of the best stretch of his career, starting with a 16-point, 9-rebound performance against Illinois on Feb. 18. He followed that up with 11 points and five rebounds at Northwestern, 15 points and three rebounds at Indiana, six points and five rebounds against Penn State, and 11 points and 11 rebounds against Iowa. He’s shot 57.5 percent from the field during that stretch by attacking the basket, grabbing offensive rebounds and getting to the free throw line, something the Badgers desperately need outside of Happ if they are going to make a run in the Big Ten or NCAA tournaments.
Thomas is averaging just 1.6 points and 1.3 rebounds in 5.3 minutes per game, but he can give the Badgers a boost on occasion. The 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward’s bulky presence provides a different look than Happ and sophomore Nate Reuvers, which can be useful in certain matchups.
The seniors have already had a successful final act, helping the Wisconsin program get back to where it has been for the past two decades. They’ll see how far they can take it over the next month. If Hayes and Koenig navigated the Badgers through the turmoil of the coaching change, Happ and his classmates carried that torch forward and will help determine the shape the Wisconsin program is in heading into the next decade.