Monday, May 27, 2024

Inside the Badgers war room, a battle plan for basketball transfers

Must read

Without hesitancy or misgivings about the end game, the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program has made a commitment to finding the right fits in the transfer portal, a 24/7 proposition.

“My wife will be happy when I stop scrolling through my phone at night and in the morning,’’ said assistant coach Sharif Chambliss, confirming the ongoing urgency in reshaping the roster.

“We’ve got a great staff that has come together a lot recently meeting in our war room-slash-boardroom in between our offices (at the Kohl Center).

“We’re just trying to figure out what we need, we’re just trying to put together a roster. It’s more proto-typical like the pro teams finding out where we need some help.

“It’s been busy. You have to go through a lot of information. It’s almost speed-dating to get to know people and be genuine about it.’’

UW assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft was on the same page. Several times he mentioned the importance of due diligence in an all-encompassing process so different than it was in the past.

“You know on how the NFL draft night, they show those war rooms or draft rooms?’’ he posed. “That’s what our office looks like. Except our draft is four weeks or six weeks long.

“We have a running draft board. The players come and go — availability and affordability. Does he fit our skills exactly? We’ve got a pecking order. But you don’t have complete control.

“You don’t get to draft these kids.’’

But you get to rent them. Take AJ Storr, who is now at Kansas, his third school in three years after stopovers at St. Johns and Wisconsin, where he was the leading scorer last season.

Joining him in the portal were Louisville-bound point guard Chucky Hepburn, a three-year starter, and Nebraska-bound 3-point shooter Connor Essegian. There have been others, too.

Officially, the Badgers have three transfers in the fold: 6-3 guard Camren Hunter from Central Arkansas, 6-8 forward Xavier Amos from Northern Illinois and 6-5 wing John Tonje from Missouri.

With the departures of assistant Dean Oliver and recruiting director Kyle Blackbourn, the new head coach at Rockhurst University, the staff has covered much ground while shorthanded.

Badgers war room generals

Kirk Penney, a special assistant to head coach Greg Gard, has been recently operating remotely from his home country, New Zealand. Penney is a 2024 inductee into the FIBA Hall of Fame.

After short NBA stints with the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers, he has competed professionally in Spain, Israel, Lithuania, Germany, Turkey and with the New Zealand Breakers.

“His pro acumen is really valuable — his ability to understand (roster building),’’ Krabbenhoft said. “Constructing a college team now is obviously different than it was five years ago.’’

Underlining the all-hands-on-deck approach, UW’s chief of staff of basketball operations, Marc VandeWettering, a 12-year veteran in the program, has also been pitching in.

“I’ll be honest,’’ Krabbenhoft said, “he’s one of the most important players right now. He’s the quote-unquote general manager, if you will. He’s been kind of piecing it all together.’’

Wisconsin assistant men’s basketball coach Joe Krabbenhoft looks on during the second half of a game against Illinois on Jan. 7 in Champaign, Illinois. (AP Photo/Michael Allio)

Steering the ship through turbulent water has been Gard, who has repeatedly stressed that it’s a “whole new world’’ that everyone saw coming and now is adjusting to the consequences.

“He has been the leader,’’ Chambliss said. “The steady guy that we all know he is.’’

Added Krabbenhoft on the staff’s preparedness for change, “Going through the NIL world, it surprised a lot of fans when we lost the guys we did. But it didn’t surprise us.

“It may have felt like we were immune from losing a really good player to the portal. It may have felt like it was never going to happen here. We, as a staff, knew it was just a matter of time.’’

How UW looks for ‘the right fit’

Essegian entered the portal on March 24, Storr on March 28, Hepburn on April 18. Begging the question, how do you find the right fit among the transfer options in a condensed time frame?

“The way of finding the right fit, maybe the process to finding the right fit has changed,’’ Krabbenhoft conceded. “But there’s an umbrella that comes under it.

“Meaning culture, style of play. What kind of young man you are. What are your values? Those kinds of things haven’t changed from when Bo (Ryan) recruited me and now Greg Gard.

“For decades, those continue to ring true when finding the right fit. Now how do you find the fit through speed dating, if you will? … These things happen fast.

“It takes a lot of phone calls. It takes a massive amount of cross-checking or reference-checking, meaning we’re circling the wagons on these kids and hard as we can within days.

“Because sometimes that’s all you have. Within days, I’m connected to the kid’s coaches, coaches in his league, any sort of connection, anything we can do to figure out as much as we can.

“As fast as we can.’’

Joe Krabbenhoft vs Indiana in 2009

Wisconsin’s Joe Krabbenhoft, left, and Indiana’s Devan Dumes vie for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Bloomington, Indiana, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

This week, Krabbenhoft spoke on the phone with former Badgers guard Brad Davison, who’s playing in Spain. Davison represents a different era, more throwback than anything else.

“When Brad was coming out of high school, I had four years do it (evaluate him) so by the time he said ‘yes’ to being a Badger I knew for sure what we were getting,’’ Krabbenhoft said.

“Now, we still have to find out all that stuff.

“But we might have four days instead of four years.’’

Wisconsin transfer Camren Hunter ‘resilient’

Hunter is an interesting study.

As a Central Arkansas freshman, he started 30 games, was named first-team All-Atlantic Sun Conference and led the team in scoring (14.1). He had a team-high 102 assists.

As a sophomore, he again started 30 games and was first-team all-league and increased his scoring average to 16.9 points. He had a triple double and scored in double figures 27 times.

As a junior, he had a foot injury during the off-season and was sidelined for the year with the exception of some work on the scout team. He also had to deal with the passing of his father.

“When I think of one word with this kid at the end of the day, it’s resilient and you’re going to find out why,’’ Chambliss said. “He’s dealt with a lot of things, a lot of stuff.

“I know this: I lost my father over six months ago. He lost his dad over four months ago. The kid is resilient. I don’t have to go into super detail with it. You’ll find out a lot about him.

“I believe he’s a combo guard that can play some point. He plays the right way, he can make certain plays and decisions at the right time. I’ll tell you this, he’s got a Big Ten body.’’

Camren Hunter - Central Arkansas

Point guard Camren Hunter averaged 15.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game over two seasons at Central Arkansas. 

Chambliss was impressed with Hunter’s knowledge of the Badgers program even though he grew up in Bryant, Arkansas, a suburb of Little Rock.

“When I called him, he had done his research beforehand,’’ Chambliss said. “He was a fan of the 2014-15 Final Four teams. He knew about Frank Kaminsky and all of those guys.

“It was pretty cool to talk to him about that and his opportunity here. Why we need him, what we need from him. The kid is ready to lay it all on the line to be a Badger and win.’’

Hunter’s physicality stood out to Chambliss. As it did for Krabbenhoft.

“He looks like he’s ready for the Big Ten,’’ Krabbenhoft said. “He’s physical, he’s strong. He plays off two feet. He’s a lefty and plays like Jalen Brunson (of the New York Knicks).’’

Hunter has two years of eligibility left. So does Amos. Another interesting study.

Xavier Amos, the Chicago Public League rep

As a true freshman at Northern Illinois, he saw minimal playing time. He started one of seven games. As a sophomore, he began to blossom with 25 starts and a 13.8 average.

“Being close to home is important,’’ Krabbenhoft said of Amos, a Chicago native. “He wants to stay close for a reason because family means a lot to him. He’s only two hours from home.

“His parents can keep coming to his games. That’s still important to these young men. They’re still in the process of growing up.’’

What was not lost on Krabbenhoft or anyone else on the staff was the fact that Amos played for Whitney Young High School in the Chicago Public League.

It had to put a smile on the face of a strong Chicagoan like former UW assistant Howard Moore, who played at Taft High in the Public League and coached at Loyola and Illinois-Chicago.

“That obviously fills our heart when we think of Howard,’’ Krabbenhoft said. “I know he’s proud to know there is a Chicago Public League kid coming to represent the Badgers.’’

N Illinois Northwestern Basketball

Northern Illinois forward Xavier Amos, right, drives as Northwestern guard Boo Buie guards during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Evanston, Ill., Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

As far as the promise that Amos has already shown as a player, Krabbenhoft said, “The potential for his game explode is bubbling. It’s about to explode.’’

Amos, who was also recruited by Virginia’s Tony Bennett, had a career high 26 points last season against Northwestern. He hit four triples and shot 38% from the arc for the year.

“For us, culture has been our staple — just knowing what types of kid we’ve been recruiting,’’ said Chambless, returning to the theme of finding the right fit for the program.

“We know that him (Amos) coming into our locker room won’t disrupt a lot of things and it might even enhance it. On the court, his skill set speaks for itself.’’

Working on another transfer

On Thursday, the Badgers dipped into the portal again and signed their third transfer in Tonje, a graduate student with one year of eligibility remaining.

During four Colorado State seasons, he started 46 of 122 games, and scored 1,072 points. In 2022-23, he averaged 14.6 and was a frequent visitor to the free throw line (106-130, .815).

NCAA Michigan Colorado St Basketball

Michigan forward Moussa Diabate, left, looks to pass ahead of Colorado State guard John Tonje, right, during the first half of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis, Thursday, March 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

After entering the portal the first time, he landed at Missouri, where he appeared in only eight games last season because of injury. He’s another Big Ten body guy with some maturity.

“He’s a strong, physical wing, a sixth-year guy, who can score it,’’ Krabbenhoft said. “He has got a confidence to him, an experience factor to him that is going to be so valuable to us.’’

As it is, Wisconsin is still on the lookout for another big, a center, a “5’’ along the lines of 7-1 Chris Vogt, a transfer from Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, who impacted the 2021-22 team.

The days don’t get any shorter in the portal for Krabbenhoft and Chambliss. Or any staffer.

Neither does their commitment to finding that fit.

Latest article