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.
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.
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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.”
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.
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.
Badgers fans on Twitter revel in Wisconsin's victory over in-state rival Marquette
A perfect fit
This is wild. Never saw this type of season coming for UW. Davis is an elite talent. And when he plays, everyone else seems to fit a role. Davison slides into that complimentary role. Got bigs. Got ball handlers. Depth. Size, etc. Getting more and more excited about this team— DRich (@drich318318) December 4, 2021
Life's tough choices
Looking up to the task
The Big10 will be a challenge but I like what I see with this team so far. If they can play D like they have and hit outside shots they will surprise a lot of people. Davis is going to be a pro, Davison provides leadership and some scoring, and Chucky plays like a senior.— John Husmoe (@JohnHusmoe) December 4, 2021
Working as one
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Will be interesting to see whether Gard goes as deep on his bench when B1G schedule begins.— Bob Bradovich (@BobBradovich) December 4, 2021
Two reactions: 1) Wow!! 2) props to Gard for taking the leash off Davis. His ability to create opens up everything— Rob (@finleyr27) December 4, 2021
Glass nearly full
They won with offense. Impressive. Davis was unstoppable. Chucky makes me remember Jordan Taylor.— Chris Davis (@cdavis20000) December 4, 2021
Won’t usually shoot like that, but they’ve shown they can win with defense as well. Much further along than expected, even for this optimist.
Delivering a knockout blow
I didn’t expect Wisconsin to smoke Marquette the way Badgers did in second half. Led by Davis, this team has more offensive punch than we’re used to seeing here in Madison.— Joseph Britt (@Zathras3) December 4, 2021
Bring on the B1G Ten
Wisconsin has shown they’re now ready for Big Ten play next Wednesday against Indiana. Johnny Davis and Brad Davison are the true leaders of this young team picked 10th in the conference. This is the best Badger team I’ve seen in several years. Excellent coaching by Greg Gard!— Jeff Ostach (@jeff_ostach) December 4, 2021
Ahead of the curve
Liking what is happening with this group. With a few more pounds from the weight room Crowl is going to be the guy to watch. He’s a lot better than we imagined. There will be bumps in the road but these guys seem to know where they are going. Kudos to Greg Gard.— Dan Kurek (@danielwkurek) December 4, 2021
Outta this world
Not even the Hubble telescope could find anything as smooth as Johnny Davis with the ball in his hands....— Craig Smith (@smithcp1) December 4, 2021
Cool under pressure
Team plays with great pace and poise. Guards continue to grow while care of the ball. Frontline still lacks, but they are riding spurts from Davis to extend leads. Impressive start to the year.— Jack Pine Express (@kwzanella) December 4, 2021
Playing with poise
This team is athletic but has done a great job of not playing out of control. Can't wait for Big Ten play. Also holy smokes Johnny— Laura (@DieselAndMe) December 4, 2021
And the list goes on
By leaps and bounds
I can't believe the poise Chucky has, he's just solid and in control. Davis is better each game. Fun fun team thus far and great to watch them grow each game.— Jeremy Wojtecki (@jwojPAC) December 4, 2021
What's not to like
How impressed were we that Wahl could run two-man bringing up the ball in full court press?— Trevor Donahue (@trev_diesel) December 4, 2021
I was told Wisconsin is slow and doesn’t play actual offense. I want a refund! /s— Joe M. (@J_Michaels25) December 4, 2021
Bursting their bubble
Thoroughly enjoyed giving Marquette some hope and then crushing that hope in spectacular fashion.— Matt Anderson (@mbanderson83) December 4, 2021
This checks out
With Davis out there, VERY good.— Matt Anderson (@mbanderson83) December 4, 2021
Poetry in motion
Davis is a smooth player. I don't know how to describe him better than smooth.— Brian Hipp (@Brianhipp) December 4, 2021
Night and day
Crazy how together this new group of guys feels after how ugly things ended with last year’s senior class— Matt Hoffman (@mattyjimbob) December 4, 2021
View from the outside
As a Hawkeye fan I think you guys look outstanding right now. Another quality win.— Eric Heinemann (@_heiney) December 4, 2021
Jumping out of the gym
Davis most athletic guy in building, Hepburn is an amazing defender. Great to beat MU!— Brian Clifford (@brcliffo) December 4, 2021
Fun on full display
This team is so fun to watch…because you can tell that they are having fun!— Susan Balsai (@sesbadger) December 4, 2021
Real deal D
Their Defense is for real. Only going to keep getting better.— Jake Nelson (@Jake_Nelson10) December 4, 2021
We knew Johnny Davis was a star, Wahl a great defender and capable post scorer, and Brad was a great leader who could step up when needed. What we saw in this was how good we can be when Chucky and Crowl play up to their potential.— Alan Haffa (@HaffaAlan) December 4, 2021
Contact Jim Polzin at firstname.lastname@example.org.