Minnesota isn’t that bad, right?
The love for Wisconsin Badgers Basketball has been in my family for generations. I will never forget my first ever experience driving up I-90 to visit the Field House to watch the Danny Jones-led Badgers take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers with my dad and his friend from work. As I hammered popcorn into my mouth patiently awaiting the start of the game, I got the impression that the folks seated around me that night were pretty jacked up for this one. The gentleman sitting right next to me was clearly amped from the opening tip. The first time the ball went out of bounds and was awarded to Minnesota this guy did not agree. His face turned bright red as he stood and screamed “Check the ball for Gopher slime” at one of the officials. This behemoth of a man wearing a Bucky Badger hat and overalls could see the stunned curiosity in my eyes as he sat back down and said to me “I hate Minnesota”. That was all I needed. If everyone in the Field House hated Minnesota, then so did this impressionable young kid!
This is where it gets a little tricky, and I certainly do not want to lose my Badger fan card by admitting this…but as I grew older, I began not hating Minnesota so much. The Mall of America is pretty cool. Paul Molitor used to manage the Twins, so there is that. My kids play in a soccer tournament in Blaine every summer and we always have a great experience. Let’s be honest, though, the main reason that I do not hate Minnesota is because of the pipeline of Minnesota high school players who have increasingly decided to bring their skills to Madison to play for the University of Wisconsin over the last few years.
How strong has the Minnesota HS presence on the Wisconsin roster been over the years? There have been twelve Minnesota prep players on the roster since 2011 and at least one player on the roster from the North Star State since 2003, when Kam Taylor graced a Badger uniform. The 2020-2021 Wisconsin roster will showcase SEVEN players who prepped in Minnesota high schools. Starting to agree Minnesota is not all that bad yet? Maybe Target did not make a mistake when some of their stores were selling “Minnesota Badgers” onesies earlier this year.
The success at Wisconsin for the twelve Minnesota players over the past ten seasons is all over the spectrum. Two of the players, current guard Walt McGrory and Jordan Smith, were walk-ons, though McGrory had scholarship offers from the likes of Brown, Drake and Maine. McGrory and Smith both filled minutes when needed and received (or in McGrory’s case is still receiving) spot minutes not usually seen from walk-ons. Alex Illikainen and Riley Dearring were two players that did not finish their collegiate careers in Wisconsin uniforms, transferring before using up all of their eligibility. Illakinen found a home at Minnesota-Duluth while Dearring moved on to Cal-State Fullerton before finally settling at Bethel University.
Wisconsin has been very successful with Minnesota prep big men. Jon Leuer set the bar in his time as a Badger, earning first team all-B1G and becoming a 2nd round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks. Jared Berggren and Mike Brusewitz would be the next two Minnesotan bigs to don the cardinal and white. Their successful stints at Wisconsin led to professional careers overseas and many, many exciting memories for all Badger fans.
The most productive Minnesota Badger has no doubt been Jordan Taylor. Taylor was Mr. Basketball as a senior at Benilde-St. Margaret’s after leading his team to a Minnesota State Championship. He would not disappoint in Madison, earning first team All-B1G in 2011 and 2012 while being a finalist for the Bob Cousy Awayd as one of the top point guards in the country during those same years. Like, Leuer, Brusewitz and Berggren, Jordan Taylor has had a great career playing professionally overseas.
Which us leads us to the current crop of Minnesota players. Walt McGrory and Joe Hedstrom are continuing to attempt to work their way into the rotation. That could become even trickier next year as everyone is scheduled to return except for Brevin Pritzl and the Badgers have a highly regarded six player recruiting class coming. Tyler Wahl just completed his freshman season, and his future looks extremely bright. Wahl checks every box needed to play for Greg Gard – willing defender, tenacious rebounder, sound decision maker – and he has athleticism that will make him tough to defend. Developing a more consistent medium to long range game will elevate him into an absolute all-around game changer. Nate Reuvers, a former teammate of Wahl’s at Lakeville North, came to Madison as a four-star recruit and Top 100 player in the nation. He has not disappointed!! Reuvers was forced into action his freshmen year, having to take his planned redshirt off early in the season, due to multiple injuries on the roster. Reuvers is a stout defender and can score on all three levels on the offensive end. That leaves us with Brad Davison, the last current Minnesota prep on the roster. Davison came to Wisconsin after being named a finalist for Mr. Basketball. He was pegged for minutes early in his Wisconsin career, but was challenged with also becoming one of the team’s leaders and scorers as a freshman after injuries sidelined Kobe King and D’Mitrik Trice…all while himself playing with a shoulder that would dislocate multiple times during the season. Davison is the definition of the type of player that you love to have as a teammate, but hate to see as an opponent. Just ask Maryland after their trip to the Kohl Center this year.
Wisconsin will add two more Minnesota natives for the 2020-2021 season. Ben Carlson, a 6’9 forward, was an ESPN Top 100 recruit and Steven Crowl, a 6’10 forward/center will make the Kohl Center their home for the next four to five years. Carlson could be leaned on for minutes right away as he enters the program with a college ready physique. Crowl might benefit from a year in the weight room while in Madison, but red-shirting is not a certain thing for him – like Carlson, the kid has some serious game.
So, why? Why is the Wisconsin staff dipping so deeply into the Minnesota pool to fill out their roster? I think there are multiple reasons for that. First and foremost, every single one of the current and incoming players come to Madison with two things – considerable talent and very little, if any, baggage. These are kids that are strong academically and have realistic expectations. They seem to embrace that nothing is handed out when coming to Wisconsin. They understand that the coaching staff will make you a stronger player and will allow you to play when you are ready. These guys know that there will be no cutting corners as a Badger. That is not the case at every D1 institution and there are a ton of HS players in today’s game that want to go somewhere to make a splash right away instead of going to a program that will embrace your talents, but also demand you work on your deficiencies.
A second major reason for the influx of Minnesotans is that right now, HS basketball in that state is at an all-time high. Their prep teams have churned out oodles of D1 players over the past few years. The top seven players in Minnesota this year are going to major programs around the country – Jalen Suggs to Gonzaga, Dawson Garcia to Marquette, Dain Dainja to Baylor, Carlson and Crowl to Wisconsin and Gabe and Mason Madsen to Cincinnati. Minnesota high schools have churned out Tre and Tyus Jones along with Matthew Hurt to Duke, Zeke Nnaji to Arizona as well as Tyrell Terry to Stanford in recent years. The University of Minnesota has been able to cash in on the success of the high school ranks in their state as well with guys like Royce White, Amir Coffey and Daniel Oturu. 2021 Minnesota 7’1 prospect Chet Holgrem is ranked in the Top 5 of every recruiting list out there and will be the next big catch from the area. That is a ton of great players produced in a short amount of time from a state the size of Minnesota.
The surplus of high-quality players in Minnesota has allowed Wisconsin to overcome not getting some of the highly rated Wisconsin prep recruits in recent years. Greg Gard and his coaching staff are extremely smart guys. They have a prototype of the kind of player they want to bring into the program and represent the school. The staff has been fortunate that so many players that fit this prototype are popping up all over in a neighboring state. The Minnesota to Wisconsin pipeline is alive and well. Could Camden Heide or Trejuan Holloman be the next North Stars that slide over to Wisconsin and play for the Badgers? That is yet to be determined.
The one thing that has been made clear to me over the years, is that the guy I sat next to in the Field House many years ago led me astray. I do not have to hate Minnesota. In fact, I embrace our neighbors to the west. I am thankful that they take such good care of all of our future Badgers in their formative years. Just do not hit me with a “Row the Boat” and we will be just fine talking about Minnesota.
Article by: Brian Denu
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