While the end result was a thing of beauty, there were a couple of red flags on the 14th possession of the game for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team Sunday night at Penn State.
Not only did it end with only one pass being made once the ball got across midcourt, the shot taken by Nate Reuvers with 19 seconds remaining on the shot clock hardly qualified as a high-percentage look: After catching the ball on the left elbow and using two dribbles while backing down a much shorter defender, the 6-foot-11 sophomore forward spun to his left and shot a 12-foot fall-away jumper that touched nothing but net.
Ethan Happ watched the play develop while getting some rest on the bench. After the Badgers had wrapped up a 71-52 victory over the Nittany Lions, the senior center specifically mentioned that sequence when asked about a recent surge by Reuvers.
“Anytime you see a guy shoot a turn-around fadeaway, his confidence is where it needs to be,” Happ said. “If he’s making that, that’s almost unguardable.”
Big Ten Network analyst Robbie Hummel, who was part of the crew calling the game in State College, Pennsylvania, immediately raved about Reuvers after the basket that gave the Badgers an 11-7 lead.
“Just a guy that gets better every time you see him,” Hummel, a former Purdue standout, said on the broadcast. “The sky really is the limit for this kid. So skilled.”
As the Badgers (11-4, 3-1 Big Ten) prepared for Friday night’s game against Purdue (9-6, 2-2), Reuvers was asked earlier this week about the shot at Penn State. While sheepishly acknowledging that he probably could have backed his way closer to the rim — the player guarding him, Penn State freshman Miles Dread, was giving up seven inches — Reuvers explained why there was no hesitation on his part to take that specific shot so early in the shot clock.
“That’s a move I’m comfortable making,” Reuvers said. “I felt comfortable shooting that shot.”
Reuvers has never been lacking in confidence, even as a skinny true freshman who was thrust into action early last season. But even UW coach Greg Gard has noticed something different in Reuvers during a stretch in which he’s reached double figures in scoring five times in seven games.
Four of those double-digit performances have come against power conference opponents. Three have been in Big Ten play, including an 11-point outing at Penn State in which Reuvers was an efficient 5 of 7 from the field.
“You can see the look on his face and the swagger he plays with that he can be a force inside,” Gard said, “and that’s something that maybe he didn’t always believe in or have the tools to be able to do before.”
It’s been well-documented that Reuvers put on some much-needed weight in the offseason, adding 25 pounds to get around the 240 mark.
Getting bigger was crucial, but getting comfortable playing with those extra pounds was another important part of the process. That evolution may help explain why Reuvers has become more of a factor in the paint over the past month.
“It’s not just the weight that’s helped him become the player he is today,” UW assistant Joe Krabbenhoft said, “it’s also the mental game.”
Krabbenhoft said Reuvers is a sponge when it comes to absorbing instructions from the coaching staff. Even last season, one of the reasons Gard pulled the plug on the plan to redshirt Reuvers was because the youngster would quickly pick up coaching points and apply them on the court.
Being observant also appears to be one of Reuvers’ strengths. Krabbenhoft can’t help but notice how Reuvers has dipped into Happ’s massive bag of tricks and applied it to his own game.
“I think we’ve seen Nate’s evolution on an upward trajectory, right?” Krabbenhoft said. “There are going to be little dips here and there — off nights, off weeks — and all our guys go through that. …
“I think he’ll continue to see that trajectory as long as he stays the course. The ceiling on that, I don’t know. That’ll be for Nate to decide.”
As for where Reuvers goes from here, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
He’s the first to admit that he needs to be more consistent. That’s a challenge, to some degree, because the offensive flows through Happ and scoring opportunities are sometimes few and far between for complementary players such as Reuvers.
Still, knocking down shots from the perimeter at a greater rate and getting to the free throw line more often are two areas that would be a boost for Reuvers and the Badgers.
And while Reuvers has improved as a rim protector, he admits he’s still straddling the fine line of when and when not to go for blocked shots. Of his team-high 27 blocks on the season, 23 have been amassed in six games and a program-record nine came against Stanford. He has a combined four blocks in UW’s other nine games.
Yet, Reuvers’ biggest room for growth is on the glass. He’s averaging only 2.7 rebounds per game and has never grabbed more than six during his 43 games with the Badgers, a startling statistic for someone his size.
To be fair, Happ gobbles up plenty of rebounds that otherwise would have ended up in Reuvers’ hands. Reuvers also has done a commendable job in his blockout responsibilities, which typically come against the opponent’s biggest player.
Still, Reuvers pointed out that his offensive rebounding total should go up — he has eight through 15 games — and he could do a better job overall in that department.
“Yes, he’s got to get better,” Krabbenhoft said. “There’s no area of the game where Nate can’t improve right now, rebounding being one that shines out on the stat sheet.”
Krabbenhoft has no doubt that Reuvers’ recent play is just a sign of things to come. As Hummel pointed out, it appears Reuvers is only scratching the surface as he hits the midway point of his second year in the program.
“He’s going to be really good,” UW sophomore guard Brad Davison said. “I think he’s still just touching his potential.”
Tennessee series set
UW and Tennessee will meet in a home-and-home series starting next season.
The Badgers will travel to Knoxville for a non-conference game on Dec. 28, 2019. The series will conclude with a game at the Kohl Center on Nov. 11, 2020.
Tennessee is ranked No. 3 this season.