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Jim Polzin: Why Wisconsin basketball freshman Chucky Hepburn is a delight to watch — on both ends

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Marquette Wisconsin Basketball

Marquette's Stevie Mitchell shoots over Wisconsin's Chucky Hepburn during the second half of the Badgers' 89-76 victory Saturday over the Golden Eagles at the Kohl Center. 

It’d be easy — and appropriate — to spend the next 900 words or so writing about Johnny Davis and how he’s become a legitimate star for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.

The sophomore guard deserves it, especially after a sparkling 25-point performance in the No. 23 Badgers’ 89-76 win over Marquette on Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center. As I tweeted during the game, after Davis had produced another jaw-dropping play, UW fans should enjoy every minute Davis plays this season because his rate of trajectory might have him leaving school early for the NBA.

University of Wisconsin men's basketball coach Greg Gard speaks to the media about playing in front of a sell-out crowd and sophomore Johnny Davis' standout performance after the 23rd-ranked Badgers rolled to an 89-76 victory over the Marquette Golden Eagles on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at the Kohl Center in Madison.

But that’s not where I’m going today because, for as well as Davis played against the Golden Eagles, it was Chucky Hepburn who I couldn’t take my eyes off as the freshman point guard was getting his first taste of this I-94 rivalry.

Hepburn told me earlier in the week that he refuses to look at box scores after games because there’s only one stat that’s important to him — “As long as we win and get the ‘dub,’” he said, “that’s all that matters” — but this is what he’d find if he checked out the one from Saturday: 15 points and six assists, both career highs, to go along with three steals in 32 minutes.

He’d played almost flawlessly until committing two turnovers in the second half, but that’s an acceptable total considering Marquette employs a full-court press. Hepburn was on the floor for 55 of UW’s 74 possessions and the Badgers averaged a robust 1.36 points per possession with him running the offense.

While the UW coaching staff has raved about Hepburn’s composure, I wondered whether Marquette’s pressure might rattle him. Nope.

“I think he’s a very, very good complement to Davis and (Brad) Davison because those two obviously do the brunt of the scoring for this team,” Marquette coach Shaka Smart said. “I think this team that Wisconsin has right now has really, really well-thought out pieces that fit together and Hepburn’s a big part of that, even as a freshman. I think he’s comfortable with understanding who he is and who those other guys are, so he’s got a bright future.”

Thing is, Hepburn is a rookie who isn’t acting like one. He’s eight games into his UW career, drawing comparisons from assistant coach Dean Oliver to Davison in terms of his leadership skills. Maybe not as vocal as Davison — few are — but “a natural,” according to Oliver.

“I thought he played like a vet,” Davis said after the win Saturday. “He was really calm and composed and defensively he was all over them. That’s what we need.”

University of Wisconsin men's basketball players Johnny Davis and Brad Davison break down the play of freshman Chucky Hepburn after the 23rd-ranked Badgers defeated the Marquette Golden Eagles 89-76 on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at the Kohl Center in Madison.

Since Davis mentioned defense, let’s start there. There were a couple splashy plays on that end of the floor from Hepburn, including the time in the first half he hit the floor to secure a steal and the possession a few minutes later when he sneaked up behind Marquette’s Justin Lewis to produce another swipe.

The Badgers were having trouble defending ball screens but UW coach Greg Gard thought Hepburn set the tone by applying more pressure on the ball handler, helping the Badgers (7-1) end the first half with a 9-2 run that allowed them to take a 34-31 lead into the break.

Smart noticed, too.

“I think defensively is where he just excels,” he said. “He gave a couple of our guards a tough time on a few of those possessions, really tough time.”

Hepburn came into the game averaging 6.2 points and shooting less than 30% from the floor. But as Oliver noted earlier in the week, none of that really matters. What is important is that Hepburn, the first pass-first point guard UW has had in a while, does so many little things that have helped the Badgers on both ends of the floor.

Any offensive stats the Badgers get from Hepburn are a bonus, and he was a box-score stuffer against the Golden Eagles (7-2).

I could tell the moment wasn’t going to be too big for Hepburn early in the game when he rejected a screen, used a crossover dribble to get a step on Lewis, hit the brakes to let Lewis fly on by and sent a behind-the-back pass to Steven Crowl for an open 3-pointer.

Later, Hepburn took an inside-out feed and could have let one rip from 3-point range. Instead, he made the extra pass to Davis for a wide-open 3-pointer in the right corner.

Beautiful basketball.

There will be growing pains for Hepburn in Big Ten play and he’s experienced some already. But Hepburn usually knows his mistake before the coaches even point it out and has shown the ability to quickly correct it.

“Most guys come to the bench and they’ve got an excuse,” Oliver said. “He’s never had an excuse one time. He comes to the bench, looks you in the eye and says, ‘Yep.’”

There was one tiny mistake Hepburn made after the game, but even then he somehow managed to look like a rookie and vet in the same moment. He was asked about what stood out about Davis’ play and he said something he probably shouldn’t have while also not going over the top with an actual curse word.

“We talk to each other all the time,” Hepburn said, “and sometimes it’s, ‘Get Johnny the ball and get the F out of the way.’”

Davis, sitting next to Hepburn, nearly spit out his water and said, “Oh, my gosh.” Davison, another seat away, started giggling.

Hepburn got a pat on his head from a UW athletic communications staffer on his way out of the media room, kind of a you-really-shouldn’t-have-said-that-but-man-it-was-funny moment. After the way he’s played so far, especially against Marquette, the freshman also deserves a pat on the back.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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