Some students are still shuffling into a second-floor classroom at Grainger Hall, while others are getting settled in their seats, when the professor begins her lecture at precisely 9:55 a.m.
It’s a Tuesday in October, and Brad Davison is not among those scrambling to get ready for this session of General Business 306. He had arrived at his seat 5 minutes early, or — as the sophomore guard for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team sees it — right on schedule.
As always, a series of routines had been checked off for Davison, a creature of habit, before he took his preferred seat in the second row on the far left side of the room. After the alarm clock on his cell phone went off at 7:19 a.m. — the 19 for his high school football jersey number — Davison began a set of spiritual rituals that include writing in a journal and reading a Bible.
After breakfast, Davison left his off-campus apartment for the Kohl Center, where he got in some shots on his own before being joined by UW assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft.
Davison showered and, even though he was running a few minutes late, arrived at Grainger with plenty of time to spare. He begins taking notes on the topic of the day — how business analytics help companies determine risks when deciding whether or not to introduce a new product — and raises his hand when the professor seeks participation from the large group.
How useful this discussion will be in the long run for Davison is debatable. He chose to major in Business Management and Human Resources because he thought those two areas of study would be valuable in his goal of becoming a college coach, but this is a required course on the path to a degree and Davison, like everything in his life, is taking it seriously.
The professor wants specific examples of how analytics are used by companies, and Davison offers one that is close to his heart: coaches who gather data to determine areas to attack or the best lineups to use.
The rest of the class is spent analyzing the risk for Chipotle Mexican Grill when the restaurant chain considers rolling out a new menu item. It’s not until after class is over for the day and Davison is back at the Kohl Center that he’s asked if he’s a risk taker by nature.
Not typically, he confirms. But there was this one time.
A different path
Five years ago, Davison’s version of an analytics tool was a list of pros and cons he constructed to help him decide what path to take in his basketball career.
The options: Davison, who was about to enter his freshman year of high school in the Minneapolis suburb of Maple Grove, could remain playing on a grassroots summer team that included a group of his close friends; or he could join Howard Pulley, a powerhouse AAU program that featured some of the top players in Minnesota and competed in the best tournaments in the nation.
During a meeting with Davison and his parents, Jim and Cori, Howard Pulley executive director Rene Pulley asked about Davison’s long-term goals. Davison said he wanted to play Division I basketball and, since he was a Duke fan at the time, he tossed out the Blue Devils as his dream school.
“No doubt, you should play in our program,” Rene Pulley told him. “That’s what we do. We give kids chances to pursue their dreams at a high level.”
As appealing as that sounded, there were other things to consider. Not only would he be leaving behind his friends on the team dubbed “Showtime,” a dominant group that included future Marquette recruit Theo John, Davison also would have to give up baseball because of the time commitment involved with joining Pulley.
There was also the matter of making the hour-plus drive — in rush hour — to the southeast Minneapolis suburbs for practice twice a week.
One other not-so-minor factor of getting used to a whole new set of coaches after being coached by his parents his entire life to that point. He’d have to, as his father put it, leave the bird’s nest.
Jim and Cori encouraged their son to branch out and, ultimately, he agreed it was time for something different.
“One thing with taking a risk is sometimes the risk is going outside your comfort zone,” Davison said. “I had never been outside my comfort zone.”
Doubts creep in
Davison’s teammates at UW are amazed at how his attitude is always upbeat.
Senior center Ethan Happ remembers thinking shortly after Davison arrived on campus that it had to be an act.
“It was almost like he was a goody two shoes and it was almost like it was fake. Like, ‘This is how he is?’ ” Happ said. “And it’s awesome to see that’s really how he is. He’s this positive all the time. He’s this happy all the time.”
Back in the summer of 2013, Davison was miserable. That comfort zone he’d stepped out of left him in a very uncomfortable place at Pulley, where he was competing against players who were a year older.
The struggles began at tryouts, when Davison barely knew anybody in the gym. He ended up being placed on the 15U second team.
“They put me on the lowest team, bottom of the totem pole, and I didn’t fit in,” Davison said. “I had no idea how to interact with people. I wasn’t talkative. I wasn’t positive. I was super down.
“I didn’t know who I was playing with. We didn’t play the same way. There was no chemistry. Coaches were cussing at me. I’ve never dealt with anything like that before.”
Self-doubt began to creep in for Davison. “I doubted my ability,” he said. “Not only my ability to play, but my ability to fit in that environment.”
Davison did his best to hide his despair when his teammates and coaches were around. But eventually it came pouring out.
“He cried after tryouts, he cried after tournaments, he struggled with a lot of things that year,” Jim Davison said. “Anything you could think of, he was probably struggling with. Not playing on the team with players he thought he was as good as. Kids that didn’t try as hard as he did, didn’t care as much as he did. Kids that didn’t listen to the coach. That never happened to him before. He was appalled.
“But you have to deal with in a different way as a 14-year-old. He had all kinds of stresses. Some of it was warranted and some of it was just a first experience for him.”
‘I could see it in him’
Davison got through that first year with the Pulley program and thought he had turned the corner, but he faced a different set of challenges the next two years.
He’d been a point guard his entire life — and was that first season with the U15 second team at Pulley — but part of Rene Pulley’s master plan was to have Davison play off the ball.
Pulley’s logic: If Davison is going to fulfill his dream of becoming a high-major Division I player, he had to develop skills that would allow him to play either guard spot at the next level.
Once again, Davison stepped outside his comfort zone. And, once again, he struggled to adapt at first.
Finally, in his fourth and final year at Pulley, everything clicked for Davison. It helped he was playing with a pass-first point guard, future Duke recruit Tre Jones, who got the ball in the right player’s hands.
When Davison was open after flying around a screen, the ball ended up in his hands. He was an indispensable piece of a loaded team that included another Duke recruit, Gary Trent Jr.
“Now, you have a great shooter that has exceptional point guard skills,” Rene Pulley said. “But he had to talk to himself and push himself to get there. He said there were times that I believed in him more than he believed in himself.
“But I could see it in him. I felt it.”
These days, Davison is the undisputed leader at UW despite only being a sophomore.
“He has his fingerprints all over the program,” Badgers coach Greg Gard said. “He’s a beacon, he’s a magnet. Players gravitate towards him. …
“It’s almost fairytale-ish. You want your kids to grow up like Brad Davison. That’s the impact he has on our program.”
That summer five years ago taught Davison a lot about how to handle disappointment. The experience came in handy last season, when Davison played almost his entire freshman campaign with a left shoulder injury that required surgery following the season.
Davison remained positive through it all, even as the losses piled up for the injury-ravaged Badgers. Even as late as March, with UW heading to the Big Ten tournament needing four wins to keep alive the program’s streak of reaching the NCAA tournament, Davison was telling roommate Kobe King that the Badgers would find a way to do it.
It didn’t happen, but Davison and the Badgers have vowed to come back even stronger this season.
If there’s one thing Davison learned a long time ago, it’s that the road to success is sometimes filled with struggle.
“That’s why he’s where he’s at right now,” Jim Davison said of the risk his son took five years ago. “There’s no doubt.”