February 26, 2009

Chemistry guides UW underclassmen

MADISON, Wis. - When Jon Leuer gets home from a day full of classes and basketball practice, he knows exactly what is likely to occur. The lanky sophomore will presumably kick off his shoes, find a comfortable spot on the sofa and settle in for the night.

With that, the standard night in the Leuer living quarters that houses him and four of his Wisconsin basketball teammates has begun.

"Some video games, probably order some pizza or something," Leuer said of his typical night. "Other than that, just hanging out."

It is that bonding experience off the hardwood that helps UW when on it.

At Wisconsin, there are no one-and-done players because the coaching staff does not recruit that way. Every man on the roster is in it for the long haul, in a system that coach Bo Ryan continually churns out all-Big Ten performers.

Once in the program, the players are in the system for years. Thus, growth as a team is unavoidable.

"I wouldn't want to play on a team that didn't have that," Leuer said in regards to team chemistry. "That wouldn't be fun. Like I said, we hang out together, we got out to eat together.

"It's just fun to have that chemistry off the court."

As a member of UW's sophomore class that is continually making its mark on this year's squad, Leuer has continually grown on both sides of the floor en route to becoming one of UW's impact players.

In the team's first 21 games, Leuer averaged more than nine points a game and was the Big Ten's leading non-starting scorer in his role as UW's sixth man.

When fellow teammate Keaton Nankivil, a regular starter to that point, suffered an ankle injury, it was Leuer that stepped into his starting role.

In the six games since, Leuer , along with consistent all around play from the rest of the team, the Badgers have compiled a 5-1 record, allowing them to slowly work back into post-season contention.

"We couldn't turn the timetable ahead on a Nankivil or a Leuer, two guys 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-10, to be able to physically inside do the things that we've had done for us the past few years," Ryan said before Wednesday's practice. "They're better at some things inside right now which helps us and they're picking up some things."

While Ryan was referring to Leuer and Nankivil's progression throughout the course of the season, the same could be said in regards to the rest of the Badger underclassmen.

Fellow sophomore Tim Jarmusz, who averages 15.7 minutes per game, continually comes off the bench and grinds through the dirty work and Nankivil is available to work the low block.

Against Michigan State, there was a point early in the game that no upperclassmen were on the court. Instead, the lineup of the three sophomores and freshmen Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson extended the Badger lead before the regular upperclassmen re-entered the game.

"When guys are in foul trouble that's just what you have to do," Jarmusz, who finished with seven points in the loss, said. "You learn through experience and I think that's what it's going to take for us to keep growing and feeling better as a team."

That, coupled with the underclassmen's growing familiarity with one another. For the sophomores, they have been around each other for the better part of two seasons and that chemistry is starting to shine through during meaningful portions of the game.

"The more I've played the more I've discovered you build that level of trust and that comfort playing with people," Nankivil, who played AAU ball with Jarmusz during their prep years, said. "A lot of people underestimate the importance of just having the feel for the people you're playing with.

"Compare it to playing in a pick up game. Right away you go in and you don't know what people are going to do. You throw them the ball (and it goes) off the wall at the SERF (one of UW's recreational facilities on campus). It's definitely a big difference playing with each other in that amount of time."

The five regular underclassmen in the Badger rotation average over 14 minutes of action per game. They also chip in a combined 20.4 out of UW's 64.7-point average.

"Those two guys (Leuer and Nankivil) and Tim Jarmusz, that sophomore class and the freshmen in there, that's fun to be around everyday in practice," Ryan said. "Because that's going to be a pretty good group. I mean they're pretty good now, but they're going to be even better as they finish their careers here (and) as they become upperclassmen."

It all starts through the initial weeks and months on campus. Sure Jarmusz and Nankivil had previous ties through the AAU circuit, but they still had not adjusted to the college life much like Leuer when he arrived on campus.

"I think that every class is close to each other because you're put into a situation that is so new," Nankivil said. "That's the people that you get through it with. It's just something of a comfort level where it's kind of like that's the person that you know has been through certain things and the things you've been through."

With three games remaining in the regular season, it is safe to say the sophomore class, and underclassmen in general, will go a long way in determining where and what this team does in post-season action.

"I feel like we've progressed a lot since we came in as freshmen," Leuer said. "Keaton, I can't even tell you how much better I think he's gotten. Mentally and physically, he's just a lot stronger. You know what you're going to get from Tim. He makes all the right plays (and) knocks down open shots.

"I couldn't have come in with two better guys."

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