MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin freshman Brad Davison carries a heavy load at a school that doesn’t typically give first-year players so much responsibility.
Imagine how good he could be if he wasn’t playing through a left shoulder injury.
Davison is playing his best ball of the season, coinciding with the team’s improved play as the Badgers head into the Big Ten Tournament in New York. Ninth-seeded Wisconsin plays eighth-seeded Maryland on Thursday.
“I think he’s really become the heartbeat of who we are,” coach Greg Gard said.
That’s saying a lot given that Wisconsin revolves around junior big man Ethan Happ, the only player in the country who leads his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.
But Happ’s production was a given on a squad that otherwise has had to rely on younger or less experienced players. In danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998, Wisconsin (14-17) has weathered growing pains.
A competitive nonconference schedule featuring four ranked teams may not have been ideal to build the confidence of a young group. Injuries to sophomore D’Mitrik Trice (foot) and touted freshman Kobe King (knee) in early December threw the rotation for a loop and sapped backcourt depth. The offense lost two guards who could drive the lane.
Davison, who had already drawn raves for his gritty and energetic play, stepped up to fill the minutes even as he dealt with the shoulder injury. It flared up again during the 68-63 loss on Sunday to Michigan State.
“It’s extremely painful when (the shoulder) comes out, because it’s kind of pulling on your tendons,” Davison said Tuesday after practice.
“But once you put it in, it’s OK … As soon it’s in there, it’s like that,” he added while snapping his fingers.
The trainer tests range of motion before giving the OK.
Against the Spartans, Davison sprinted out of the tunnel and went right to the scorer’s table as anticipation built in the hometown crowd. Davison scored 10 of his career-high 30 points after returning to the floor with 7:18 left, including a 3 with 6 seconds left to give the Badgers one last shot at taking down the Spartans.
“Once I’m in the game, adrenaline takes over,” Davison said, “and I just love playing basketball.”
Coaches say that his energy is infectious. But he did hit what assistant Dean Oliver described as the “rookie wall” in February. Davison looked a little tired and his shoulder was sore, so Gard gave him two days off from practice before the Feb. 8 game against Illinois.
It was just the breather that Davison needed.
Turnovers are down, while Davison is getting good looks with the ball off screens. On defense, Oliver said Davison is getting more disciplined instead of gambling for steals.
“Now he’s picking his spots better,” Oliver said.
Wisconsin has won four of its last six games, a stretch that included a 57-53 win over No. 6 Purdue. The defense has improved overall and the offense is crisper. The Badgers can now better withstand stretches when Happ is off the floor for rest or foul trouble.
Freshmen like Davison, or players who have stepped into bigger roles this season like Khalil Iverson, are finally growing into their new responsibilities. Communication is better on the floor.
Davison often has the loudest voice.
“He talks very well and he says the right things, but talk only get you so far,” Gard said. “Then you have to back it up with how you play, and I think that’s how he’s earned the respect of his teammates.”