In their 80-74 win over Minnesota Sunday afternoon, two Badger freshmen made it clear that they had earned a role on the floor and could make a significant contribution. Forward Joe Krabbenhoft and walk-on forward Kevin Gullikson combined for 40 minutes, 22 points and 13 rebounds off the bench.
"Those guy made us pay and did a good job," Minnesota coach Dan Monson said.
Krabbenhoft scored 10 points against the Gophers and led all players with 10 rebounds.
"I try not to think of myself as a freshman anymore," Krabbenhoft said. "Back in South Dakota we only play 18 games so I feel like I've already gone through a whole season."
Krabbenhoft has played more than any other Badger freshman this season and is averaging just fewer than five rebounds per game during Big Ten play.
"He did a great job keeping everything out in front of him," UW coach Bo Ryan said of Krabbenhoft, who has been productive off the bench all season. "He was opportunistic," Ryan added.
Taking advantage of every opportunity is perhaps the only way a freshman can get anywhere in the toughest league in the country. This season has been filled with opportunities for young players on Ryan's bench.
Ryan has had to dig deep this year not only because he lost so many good players to graduation, but also because two of his top reserves were deemed ineligible to play early in the Big Ten season.
One of those ineligible players was freshman forward Marcus Landry, who had looked like a soon-to-be star. With Landry sitting on the bench in street clothes for the remaining games, Gullikson received the chance to play and he has earned every minute of it.
On Sunday Gullikson was the team's second-leading scorer with 12 points. The dozen he put in is even more remarkable considering he only played 18 minutes.
Most of Gullikson's points came at the free throw line, a place the Badgers have struggled for much of the year. Gullikson made 6 of 8 free-throw attempts, helping his team to make 29 of 36 from the charity stripe on the evening. Krabbenhoft also stood out at the line, shooting 5-for-6. It was by far the best all-around free-throw shooting display by the Badgers this season.
Numbers, however, cannot record some of the best parts of Gullikson's performance on Sunday. The freshman forward made big plays at key, pressure-filled moments in the game.
At the end of the first half Gullikson grabbed his first defensive rebound of the night and on the ensuing possession drew a foul on Minnesota forward Dan Coleman. Gullikson made both free throws to cut the Gopher lead to four points. The freshman wasn't finished. On the next play the Badgers forced a bad shot by Minnesota guard Rico Tucker and ran the floor to set up Gullikson. He drained a long-range jump shot to make it a one-position game with 42 seconds left before intermission.
Later in the game Gullikson continued to play at a high level even with the pressure of holding a marginal lead over the Gophers during the stretch. With three and a half minutes to go Badger guard Kammron Taylor drove to the hoop and missed a lay-up but Gullikson quickly ripped down an offensive board. Without any hesitation, Gullikson jumped and laid one in the net to keep the Badgers ahead.
In addition to his tremendous work on the glass, Krabbenhoft made one of the biggest shots of the game, draining his only 3-point attempt to give UW a 49-45 lead with 14:07 left to play.
Both Gullikson and Krabbenhoft were on the floor for much of the Badgers' stretch run, when they out-scored UM 21-14 to erase a 60-59 deficit. Sunday showed the kind of faith these UW freshmen have earned from their teammates and coach.
"They did a great job," Badger star forward Alando Tucker said. "If they're willing to step up and rebound, then make big plays defensively, that's exactly what we need."
Tucker is the league's leading scorer and he had a game-high 22 points against Minnesota on Sunday. He and the freshmen are thrilled that the younger players can take some pressure off of him when he is double or triple teamed.
"Tuck can score on five guys, there's no doubt in my mind. But when he sees us open, that is an easier shot than going over four or five guys," Krabbenhoft said.