The Badger backcourt has shown potential, but there are still kinks to work out
Sitting at a 2-1 to start the season, Wisconsin is still learning how to best use its talented guard rotation. The Badgers are hunting for their first postseason appearance since 2011 and the team’s backcourt may be what elevates them there.
Badger head coach Jonathan Tsipis said that this is the most talented guard rotation he’s had in his tenure at Wisconsin, citing his backcourt’s talent and versatility.
“We have guards that are quicker, guards that are creating their own shots, guards that we know will get us into the right action,” Tsipis told High Post Hoops.
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Make no mistake: this team will still rely heavily on its front court for production, especially its starters. With the departure of Marsha Howard and Kelly Karlis—two of the team’s top-three leading scorers, both posts—Wisconsin’s bigs have their work cut out for them. But sophomore post Imani Lewis should hopefully return her consistent 2018-2019 production and Abby Laszewski’s reliability this year has been critical, including a 19-point outing against Colorado on 9-for-13 shooting.
But Tsipis has a different outline for success than last year—a multitude of different talents in the backcourt that bring an exciting combination of slashing, shooting, passing and shot creation. The head coach is still searching, however, for the best way to employ all of the talent in that backcourt, and how to fit it around Lewis and Laszewski, no small feat considering the youth of many key pieces.
The ugly side of that search flared up in Thursday night’s road rout at the hands of the Colorado Buffaloes—the Badgers’ offense looked completely disconnected in the 74-57 loss. The Badgers never got into any sort of flow going beyond a few brief runs that Colorado squelched immediately.
Still, Wisconsin showed in its first two games what could make this team special, double-digit wins against the University of North Florida and Wofford College that showcased the versatility of the team’s backcourt. Five different guards played 15 or more minutes in Sunday’s game against Wofford, and the Badgers are getting more than two-thirds of their points its guards this season.
Newcomer Julie Pospisilova has been the linchpin to Tsipis’ varied lineups. She looks like the ideal wing to play alongside the Badgers’ mixture of guards, showing an ability to spot up from distance and enough wiggle to her game to create for herself. The Czech wing probably has the widest usage as a perimeter defender on the team, able to use her size and length to swallow up smaller guards and get into passing lanes.
While she hasn’t been tasked with initiating the offense, she has flashed a passing ability that could develop into something special, notching nine assists in her first two games. She’ll toss bounce passes that skip along the floor into corner shooters’ pockets and flip live dribbles into post entry passes with ease. Pospisilova still gets caught trying to do too much on occasion—she’ll toss a ball high pushing it on the break or get too casual passing into the paint—but has a touch of flair that is hard to miss on the court.
As important as Pospisilova is for Wisconsin, there might not be another player who means more to the team’s success than senior Kendra Van Leeuwen. The 94-game starter is the prototypical program guard: capable of both playing within the flow of the offense and controlling that same flow when needed.
Van Leeuwen has been the first player Tsipis looks to when the offense needs to settle down or get into its sets. She dished out 11 assists against Wofford with just three turnovers. If she can limit those turnovers, an area of her game she has struggled with in the past, she could be due for a big year.
Incoming freshman and Wisconsin native Sydney Hilliard figures to lighten some of Van Leeuwen’s lead guard load. She’s averaging 10 points, four rebounds and two assists in less than 20 minutes of play through three games. How those numbers hold up as the Badgers get into conference play remains to be seen, but the first year guard’s scoring ability has impressed so far.
Hilliard is a slasher’s slasher—capable of taking defenders off the dribble and getting to the rim at will. She hasn’t shown an ounce of passiveness in her first two games and should carve out a significant role in the team’s success.
Junior Niya Beverley will also provide a hefty dose of minutes at the point guard spot. Beverley started 25 games last year for Wisconsin, averaging 5.5 points and two rebounds per game.
The 5-foot-7 guard missed the Badgers’ home opener with an injury, but returned to her usual dose of minutes against Wofford. Beverley’s production this year will be interesting to watch with so many other capable guards on the roster, and she may be able to settle into a more efficient role than in years past.
Waiting on the wings is Suzanne Gilreath: Wisconsin’s premier perimeter shooter. The sophomore knocked down five threes en route to scoring 21 points against Wofford, and hit three the Tuesday before against North Florida. She went scoreless against Colorado, but suffered largely from the team’s overall lack of shotmaking.
With the amount of attack-the-basket guards on Wisconsin’s roster—as well as Lewis and Laszewski—Gilreath’s shooting opens up the floor for her teammates. Gilreath hit just under 36% of her threes last year on 4.3 attempts per game, and looks to be continuing where she left off. She has a knack for getting out on the break and finding her spots around the arc, leaving the lane open for cutting bigs and driving ball handlers.
The Badgers’ depth and versatility in the backcourt will go a long way in Wisconsin’s push for a postseason appearance. The team crumbled when it got to Big Ten play last year, but the wider range of scoring options on the perimeter may help them find success in conference play.
They haven’t been perfect so far and they’ve certainly shown some flaws that may not get ironed out this year, but the blueprint is there—it’s just a matter of the plans coming to fruition.
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