Battling the Mountain

Keaton Nankivil (Brad Fedie/2009)

Recruited as Wisconsin's next big post presence, sophomore forward and Madison native Keaton Nankivil still searches for the consistency that is needed to battle the best in the country.

MADISON – Ever since he was growing up and started playing organized basketball, Keaton Nankivil was always his own hardest critic. Wanting to display perfect footwork, a solid shot and play tough defense, Nankivil, no matter how good or how he played, still expected more from himself.

As Nankivil has ventured through the peaks and valleys during his sophomore season, his thought process hasn't changed, although he wishes some things would.

Given the near impossible task of filling the large shoes left by Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma, Nankivil's first season as a starter has been filled with some high moments, a lot of down moments and a lot of moments of simple frustration.

"There are days you look like a million dollars and there's days where you look like 10 cents, it's the typical peaks and valleys you see with younger players," associate head coach Greg Gard said "There's not any miracle magic wand that we can wave and transport somebody into a well-developed player. That takes the course over time and whether it comes together or not, that's going to be determined by how hard he works."

Nankivil doesn't have to be reminded on the working aspect of the game. During Nankivil's freshman year, Wisconsin went 31-5 and won both the regular season and conference championships. Although his minutes were miniscule last year, Nankivil made it his responsibility to learn the plays on the scout team and pick up little tidbits here and there.

Starting the season as a starter, being thrust from scout team to top team, hasn't been the easy transition on the former Mr. Basketball winner from Madison Memorial.

"There are so many things that go on that there's no way you're going to do them all perfect, but you've got to try your best and do what you can to get stuff done," he said. "There's a big difference from being on scout team to being on the first team. I wish I could pick things up faster, as sometimes it takes me awhile to change old habits and develop new ones. If you get certain things going, you get stuck in that groove and it's hard to change."

It's also hard to meet expectations when you set the bar so high so early. Nankivil (who played in just 19 games, averaged 0.4 minutes and scored seven points throughout his freshman year) did himself few favors to ease into the starting role when he dominated the annual Cardinal-White scrimmage last October. Scoring 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting, it was thought that Nankivil would be able to fill a scoring void.

Starting in 20 of UW's first 21 games, Nankivil showed flashed of brilliance (scoring 21 points against Purdue and 11 points against Connecticut and Marquette) but has been stuck in neutral, being bullied in the post by stronger and more experienced post players.

In 23 of UW's 26 games he's played, Nankivil has recorded four or less rebounds and has been shutout on the glass six times. Including his four double-digit scoring outputs, Nankivil is averaging only 4.5 points per game.

Throw in a twisted ankle that caused him to be limited or out for four games and Nankivil knows that consistency is goal number one.

"I hope (the 10-plus point games) are scratching the surface but until I can prove consistently what I can do, you can't really say much about my game," Nankivil said. At the same time, you've got to take some steps and hopefully, those were steps in the right direction."

Since being replaced by sophomore Jon Leuer in the line up, Nankivil has taken some positive steps. He scored five points in 10 minutes against Iowa, pulled down five rebounds spent minutes guarding Goran Suton in the first half against Michigan State and hasn't committed a turnover since January 27 against Purdue.

"Defensively, he starting to learn to play physical and move his feet and it's becoming more instinctual than having to process things on the fly," Gard said. "There's never going to be an ending point when you're done learning, but I am sure he'll draw from this experience he's going through now. You just have to stay positive, keep working and asking questions."

The questions, just like the peaks and valleys, are plentiful for Nankivil, who is starting to get answers. Spending early parts of the season working on rebounding, boxing out and putting on muscle, Nankivil is developing his motor and his body to bang down low in order to give the Badgers a successful power in the post.

As history suggests, Nankivil's development will either equal Wisconsin success or struggles in the paint.

"Maybe it takes a little longer and is a little more difficult, but it's what is expected and perfection is the goal," Nankivil said. "There are just so many things you have to learn and pick up in order to play at this level but I'll get them down and be ready to compete."

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