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Lucas at Large: With Badgers, Kerr comes away impressed

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Photo: Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY -- Seated at courtside, Marv Albert and Steve Kerr greeted Bo Ryan near the end of Wisconsin's practice here Thursday at the Sprint Center. Upon shaking Albert's hand, Ryan cracked, "I've got a son who does you better than you.''

Matt Ryan has been known to impersonate the voices of Albert and Bill Walton, among other sports celebrities. The younger Ryan, who once worked on his dad's staff in Madison, is now living in California and giving private basketball lessons to youngsters.

Albert and Kerr will be on the call of Wisconsin's opening game in the NCAA tournament Friday against Ole Miss for truTV. To this end, Kerr already has a book on the Badgers from having watched them last weekend against Indiana and Ohio State in Chicago while broadcasting for CBS.

"They're just unflappable,'' said Kerr, 47, the owner of five NBA championships, three with the Bulls and two with the San Antonio Spurs. "They're not always going to make shots but they're going to take care of the ball and they're going to run their stuff.''

Kerr has an appreciation for good defense because he was so good on offense; he's the NBA's all-time percentage leader (.454) in 3-point shooting. At that, opponents are shooting just 29 percent from beyond the 3-point arc against the Badgers, a school record.

That figure was even lower in the Big Ten tournament, where Michigan, Indiana and Ohio State converted on only 9-of-46 attempts (19.6).  Wisconsin is giving up 3.9 triples per game, the fewest among all BCS conference teams and the sixth-fewest overall in Division I.

"They're going to fight you on every possession,'' Kerr said. "They're a nightmare to play against because they don't give you anything easy. You have to earn every basket.''

Jared Berggren, the Big Ten leader in blocks per game (2.1) and UW's career leader (141), has played his way onto Kerr's radar. "I'm so impressed with what they do on defense particularly on the interior,'' he said. "Berggren is an amazing defender.''

Kern has a pretty discerning eye, too, considering he's the former general manager of the Phoenix Suns. "You don't really see it until you watch him closely,'' he said. "He's obviously a good shot blocker, but I'm talking about his positioning defensively.''

On ball swings, Kerr pointed to Berggren's ability to "find a way to get around his man and beat him to the spot'' along with "cutting off driving angles for guards.'' How is Berggren viewed by NBA scouts? Does he have a future at the next level?

"People love his defense,'' Kerr said. "But the key is that he would have to be a floor-spacing, 3-point shooter, which he has shown he can be. But he has been very inconsistent.''

As a junior, Berggren shot 37 percent from 3-point distance. But his numbers have dropped off dramatically this season to 26 percent. In the Big Ten, he was 8-of-48 (.167).

"You always have to find a place offensively on the floor in the NBA otherwise it becomes a four-on-five game,'' Kerr reasoned. "But he's big, he's a smart player. He can do some things. But if he could perfect that outside shot it changes everything.''

Bo knows defense, Kerr knows guards. That's why he had nothing but praise for the transition that Traevon Jackson has made to point guard, especially in Ryan's system.

Beyond the loss of Joss Gasser, he said, "What a tough role to fill Jordan Taylor's shoes.''

On top of that, Kerr noted that Jackson had to learn how to play the point "for a demanding coach who demands ball security.'' Based on his Chicago effort, he added, "I thought his play last weekend was one of the reasons why they had such a good run.''

When quizzed on the steady growth of UW freshman Sam Dekker, there was a twinkle in Kerr's eyes when he said, "He's got a little Doug McDermott to his game.''

McDermott, a 6-foot-7 junior wing, is the All-American for Creighton.

"He (Dekker) has that kind of potential, size, shooting touch and toughness,'' said Kerr. "I think he has just scratched the surface. He's going to be a big-time player.''

Dekker has been explosive in the open floor when the situation has presented itself. "If there's an opening,'' said Kerr, "they will run down and shoot a 3.''

But where the Badgers can frustrate an opponent is in the half-court. "No matter how hard you guard,'' Kerr said, "they're going to work even harder to get a good shot.''

How will Friday's game here unfold? "Even though they're playing well,'' he said of the Rebels, "I like the matchup for Wisconsin because I think they can control the pace and tempo and frustrate Ole Miss by making them guard for the whole clock.''

Still, he cautioned, "In the end, you have to make shots -- all the usual things.''

This has been an unusual season in college basketball because of parity, which led Kerr to conclude, "I think Wisconsin could make the Final Four." (He paused.) "I think they could also lose in their first game. You could say a lot of teams are in that situation.''

Lucas at Large: Henderson hard for Badgers to ignore

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KANSAS CITY -- Neither Zak Showalter nor Jordan Smith had ever been "pulled'' before for not "pulling it,'' or shooting it enough, on Wisconsin's scout team.

But that was the consequence for making the extra pass or taking a higher quality shot while simulating Mississippi's top gun Marshall Henderson here Wednesday.

Showalter and Smith took turns as Henderson.

"I think they're both a little gun-shy,'' observed UW associate head coach Greg Gard, who's in charge of the scouting report on Ole Miss. "But they just have to let it fly.''

Throughout the practice in the Rockhurst University gym, Gard exhorted Showalter and Smith to "move, move, move'' and to "take it'' to "pull it'' from all angles and depth.

"I've never played like that before,'' said Showalter, a freshman from Germantown, Wis. "I got pulled out for passing it even though we scored. That's something different.''

In using screens and freeing himself up for shot opportunities, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Henderson has shown a non-stop motor -- making him difficult to defend or copy.

"I've just been running everywhere,'' Showalter said. "It's been fun, but it's been just chaotic basically. He runs in millions of circles all game so that's what I've been trying to do."

Gard rotated Showalter and Smith in the Henderson role "so they can stay fresh and get a little more speed off their cuts'' because Ole Miss is always looking to get him open.

"I love shooting, everybody loves shooting, it's a dream job for a scout guy,'' said Smith, a sophomore from Orono, Minn. "But you have to run off a lot of screens.''

You also need a special mindset. "He (Henderson) thinks he can make everything he shoots,'' Smith added. "That's how you have to play if you're going to be him.''

In 34 games, Henderson has taken 507 shots. Or 139 more than anybody else on his team. Or 150 more than Ryan Evans, who leads Wisconsin in field goal attempts.

"I took 25 shots once in a game,'' Smith said. "But I think that's about what he (Henderson) takes on average. That's crazy. But it's fun to emulate him.''

Actually, he's averaging about 15 per game with a high of 23. It just seems like he's taking every shot that goes up for Ole Miss because he's such a focal point of the offense.

Here's more perspective: Henderson has taken 367 shots from beyond the 3-point arc. Or 273 more than any of his teammates. Or 173 more than Wisconsin's Ben Brust.

Henderson has made 131 triples. Brust and Sam Dekker have combined for 125.

"I like his confidence in his game,'' Showalter said of Henderson. "He can miss six shots in a row and he'll just keep shooting it. He shoots to get hot and shoots to stay hot.

"He's going to get his shots up no matter what. There's nothing that's going to keep him from doing that. So I've been trying to do that all week in practice.''

Henderson is more than just a shooter; there's much more to his success.

"The biggest thing is how hard he plays,'' Gard said. "I know a lot has been made of his theatrics but he understands how to play and he makes so many plays for his team.

"He'll come off a screen and draw help and have guys running at him and he'll be finding the open guy. His court awareness is really good, and you don't want to foul him.''

Henderson is an 88-percent shooter from the foul line. He has attempted 183 free throws. Or 38 more than Evans, who has gotten to the stripe the most for the Badgers.

"He (Henderson) really sets guys up and baits people into fouling him,'' Gard said. "He'll get a defender out of position and if you rise out of your stance, he'll dribble into you.

"He's good at acting, too. He'll fall down and kick his foot out -- things that we've seen other guys do. You just try to warn your defenders that you can't get too close.''

But you still have to close out on the shooter, Henderson. The Badgers will use a rotation of defenders, ranging from Brust to Mike Bruesewitz to Evans.

"That's what we've done with good shooters all year,'' said Gard.

Bruesewitz, in particular, has usually drawn the assignment of guarding the opposing team's No. 1 threat, whether it has been Illinois' Brandon Paul or Indiana's Victor Oladipo.

At 6-6, 223-pounds, Bruesewitz brings more size to close-outs than perhaps Henderson is accustomed to seeing. But Bruesewitz is not as quick as Brust; not even close.

Henderson has drawn comparisons to former Michigan State guard Drew Neitzel.

"Only he's a little faster than Neitzel,'' Gard said. "They spread the floor for him and he changes directions on screens so well. He's flying off things.

"And he can make a lot of things happen beyond just shooting the ball. If you make one little mistake now it opens up an alley for him to attack (the rim) too.''

Henderson has come under attack for his showboating and flamboyance. He angered Florida fans with a "Gator Chomp'' and he has a "Land Shark'' hand wiggle after making 3s.

"It looks like he's having fun,'' said Gard, who then cut to the chase. "He's a very good player. He plays hard and he makes a lot of shots.''

Because of his volume of shots, Gard didn't have any trouble recruiting volunteers to simulate Henderson on the scout team, either. "Everybody wants to be him,'' he said.

Lucas at Large: Tolzien prepares for Super experience

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As the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart, the backup to the backup, Scott Tolzien didn't take any snaps for the San Francisco 49ers. But he still feels good about his ongoing pro football education.

"For starters, I get to go against the No. 1 defense in the NFL week-in and week-out,'' said Tolzien, the former Wisconsin quarterback, who runs the 49ers' scout team in practice.

"I remember when I first got here, I thought, 'Am I the worst football player around? Or, what's the deal?' It didn't take long to figure out that our defense is extremely good.''

It's one of the reasons why the 49ers are playing in Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens. Another reason has been the dramatic emergence of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Tolzien started the season as the backup to Kaepernick, who was the backup to Alex Smith. But after Smith suffered a concussion, Kaepernick took over as the starter and Smith is now the top reserve.

"I've learned a lot from just being the third guy,'' Tolzien admitted. "What I thought was really cool was that none of this quote-unquote controversy changed the dynamic in our quarterback room.

"It was still business as usual. Both guys, especially Alex, were so professional about it. I know it didn't change the way Alex prepared on a week-to-week basis. That included helping me and Colin.''

Regarding Kaepernick's rapid development, Tolzien said, "We all knew he had the physical tools. You saw that in practice. But the way he's done it on game days is extremely impressive.

"He's still a young quarterback yet he doesn't make the young guy mistakes. Even more than that, he's not just managing the game, he's making plays.''

Tolzien felt all along that Kaepernick "went into this thing extremely confident and once he was able to put a few games together, he can outwardly express that and take command of the huddle.''

Along with Washington's Robert Griffin III and Seattle's Russell Wilson, the dynamic Kaepernick has been at the forefront of introducing an innovative way to attack NFL defenses with the zone read.

"They took the league by storm this year,'' Tolzien opined. "In my mind, one of the top storylines has been what this offensive scheme has done to the league and how it has transformed it.''

But does it have staying power? Or is it a trend? Tolzien wasn't sure.

"I'm curious as anyone else,'' he said. "Right now, nobody has an answer. It creates a lot of one-on-one situations. All it takes is for one guy to be off on his gap responsibilities, and it's a house call.''

There has been no denying the impact of the dual-threat quarterback, for now, at least. But what about the new wave at the position? That includes RG3, Wilson and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck.

"I still don't think people understand how ridiculous that is to step into NFL huddle at that age and take over like they have,'' Tolzien said. "That's so uncommon. Yet they've made it look so easy.''

Tolzien, who led the Badgers to the 2010 Big Ten title, can derive satisfaction not only from the overall team results but in how the defense reacts to each individual opponent from week to week.

Leading up to the Super Bowl, he has simulated the tendencies of Baltimore's Joe Flacco and provided a picture of the Ravens offensively and "concepts that they're running'' with Flacco.

FB_130201_Tolzien_Scott_49ers.jpg"Over the course of the season,'' Tolzien said, "if you take one piece from each guy (opposing QB), you can have a few more things in your own arsenal to draw from at the end of the season.

"I basically try to treat Wednesday and Thursdays as my game days. What it all boils down to is that you're preparing each week as the starter, whether you're third string or first string.

"You'd be cheating yourself -- you'd be cheating your team -- if you weren't doing that. A majority of my focus is on our own scheme. That's one of the fun parts of the gig.''

On Super Bowl Sunday, he will be "trying to live or play vicariously through the starter and provide an extra set of eyes for adjustments that can be made during timeouts and between series.''

The mere fact that he's on the roster of Super Bowl team has been pretty overwhelming.

"This last week has been crazy, but it also has been awesome,'' Tolzien said. "It's kind of like the same feeling when you win the Big Ten and you find out that you're going to the Rose Bowl.

"Now to actually have those two things happen, it's surreal. I'm so fortunate, and so thankful, and I want to make sure I don't ever take any of this for granted.''

Although he has been inactive more than he has been active, dressing for just three games during the regular season, Tolzien has treated his apprenticeship with urgency.

"You realize at this level that a lot of it is on you,'' Tolzien said. "If you're not good enough, they're going to find the next guy. That's pretty powerful right there.

"You'd better find a way to get better each week otherwise you're not going to last. There's another crop of guys coming into this league after the draft and they're looking to take your job.

"It will be like that every year until I establish myself in this league -- until I get playing time and prove that I can do it. I'm fine with that. Bottom line: you have to be hungry to get better.''

By all accounts, Tolzien is famished. "It's pretty simple, I want to be a starter (in the NFL),'' he said. "That hasn't changed since when I picked up a football when I was 10 years old.''

To this end, he has been taking advantage of his teachers: Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL signalcaller, and San Francisco quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, the brother of Pitt coach Paul Chryst.

"(Harbaugh) played over a decade in the league,'' Tolzien said, "so there's merit in the things that he points out to you, whether it's a defensive scheme or a fundamental of the position.

"It's not just coachspeak. He sees the game through our lens and that has been extremely helpful. I'm just so happy to work with both guys. They're first-class individuals and awesome coaches.

"Geep is the more talkative version of Paul (who was Tolzien's offensive coordinator at Wisconsin). They have the same humor and personality. You're just going to hear more out of Geep.''

As it was, Tolzien heard from Smith after the Badgers hired Gary Andersen as their new head coach in December.

Smith and Andersen were at Utah at the same time.

"Right away, he goes, 'That's an awesome hire,''' Tolzien said. "He told me he's just one of the most genuine people that you'll ever come across, just a normal guy.''

Not unlike Tolzien.

Lucas at Large: 50th anniversary celebration, but focus on 2012-13

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At Monday's news conference, Ryan Little was more than happy to model his Wisconsin hockey sweater; bearing  No. 20 on the back, the 50th anniversary logo on the shoulder and an "A'' on the front.

Like all of his teammates, Little would like to "accessorize'' the season with an NCAA tournament appearance; a missing thread since losing to Boston College in the 2010 Frozen Four finals.

"The past two years we haven't made the tournament and it's a tough way to end your year,'' said Little, a senior from Fond du Lac and an assistant captain (hence the "A'').

"You think about that for the rest of the school year and all summer and that kind of eats away at you. So if that's not enough motivation for you then you're not in the right sport.''

The Badgers have returned to the ice in preparation for what many believe can be a fruitful season based on the experience level of the roster.

"People are giving us a little more credit this year, they are expecting big things out of us,'' Little acknowledged. "But we don't want that to go to the guy's heads too early and get too confident.

"We've got a lot to prove still.

"That's the main message we're trying to get across.''
   
The Badgers got on a late roll last season, but it was truly too little, too late.
   
"We had a lot of close one and two-goal losses and then we finally started to figure it out towards the end of the year and we were playing pretty well in the playoffs,'' Little said.
   
"We didn't' get the result we wanted.

"But if we can pick up where we left off, we can use some of those tough losses for some motivation; just that experience of knowing what we need to do win those close games.''
   
MHKY_120920_Little_Ryan.jpgThis will be an historic season; not only are the Badgers celebrating their proud hockey tradition, but they are writing their final chapter as a member of the WCHA before moving into a Big Ten league.
 
Little is well aware of the history surrounding the program.
   
"Anyone who plays hockey is somewhat aware of it,'' he said, adding that it really sinks in "once you get here and see the stuff on the walls and hear coach (Mike)  Eaves telling stories about it."
   
As a fifth-year senior, he's well-versed on the tradition. "I've heard quite a bit and seen quite a bit about it,'' he said. "There's really nothing like it - it's a pretty special place for hockey.''
   
That, understandably, has become a part of the recruiting pitch.
   
"There's no question,'' Eaves said. "When you walk into the lobby of our office and you see the history timeline, first of all, and then you see the trophy case. That kind of speaks for itself.''
   
The Badgers have won six national championships.
   
"Once a young prospect sees our fans,'' Eaves said, "and the kind of energy that they bring to a game here they think it's a little different than other sports in that it creates its own unique culture.''
     
What has Eaves seen thus far from his players during their limited practices?
   
"I think they're excited and that's to be predicted,'' he said, "after we had the type of year that we had last year where we saw great growth but we were left on the outside (of the NCAAs).
   
"Everybody is anxious to get back on the inside. The one nice thing about this year is that we will start further down the alphabet than we did last year (because of the youth and inexperience).

"We ended up starting at a or b. This year we may be starting at h or i ... and moving forward from there. That will help us get off to a good start.''

The key ingredient in the recipe for a successful hockey season is no secret.

"We've got to find a way to win those close games,'' Eaves said. "We were on the bottom end of too many one-goal games. Part of the secret, quite frankly, is experience.

"You had 20 freshman and sophomores last year that were trying to figure it out and put in situations that they probably weren't ready to handle, but we had no choice.

"We've got that under our belt now, and we can move forward.''

In honoring the legacy through the 50th celebration of past championship teams and players, Little said, "You want to look back 20 years from now and have guys doing the same thing for you.''
 
Celebrating success never gets old.

Lucas at Large: Badgers grow together heading into home opener

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Wisconsin volleyball coach Pete Waite was asked if had a "wild card'' up his sleeve. That could be one player who has the potential to impact the mix, if she hasn't already, and make everyone better. That could be one player who is just beginning to understand how good she can be.

"Crystal Graff is starting to break out coming off an injury,'' Waite said of his sophomore outside hitter from Madison La Follette High School. "We didn't expect her to be on top of her game right away. But each week she's looking better and better.''

Waite knows what Graff can do when healthy. As a freshman, she started 19 of 20 matches before a leg injury sidelined her for the second half of the season and the spring. On Aug. 31, she had 13 kills against Cal State Northridge, just two shy of her career high of 15 set at NC State last year.

Waite had another "wild card'' candidate.

"The other one is on our right side and she's from Norway,'' Waite said of Julie Mikaelsen, a junior from Askim, Norway. "She's so much better than she was a year ago and I think she's going to be a big factor for us. She's one of our offensive leaders right now.''

Mikaelsen ranks fourth on the team in kills (2.57 per set) which may not seem like much until you revisit her narrative and consider how far she has literally come as a player, on and off the floor. Prior to this season, she had appeared in 50 matches, including 25 starts as a freshman.

"Her English has improved dramatically,'' Waite said. "If you were to speak to her, you would never know that she's Norwegian other than when she's talking about her homeland.''

One of Mikaelsen's coaches in Norway had previously coached professionally in the United States. One of his contacts had Wisconsin ties, which led to Waite recruiting Mikaelsen. "I went to watch her practice and play and I really liked her,'' Waite said.

Mikaelsen was originally a part of Wisconsin's 2009 recruiting class. But there were some questions about her NCAA eligibility. "She was here two days before our preseason camp, and we had to send her back for a year,'' Waite said. "I went and watched her again and she was more mature.''

During the 2009-10 season, Mikaelsen played for the University of Stavanger club team. Her international resume is fairly extensive through her participation with the Norwegian Junior National Team (2006-2010) and a summer stint with the Norwegian Senior National Team in 2011.

On top of all of that, she has been a good fit.

"She's a great teammate,'' Waite said.

That would seem to fall in line with the type of personality the Badgers have been cultivating.

"They're a pretty resilient group,'' Waite said. "We're pretty thin in the middle right now, so we just have Alexis Mitchell and Mary Ording. And they're just troopers; they're getting all the reps in practice. Mary is getting up to speed because it's not a position that she played much in the past.''

Mitchell , meanwhile, is a senior and proven Big Ten competitor.

"She isn't a big surprise, but she keeps getting better,'' Waite said. Who are the surprises then? "Deme Morales is in the back row and she's a phenomenal athlete with a great jump top-spin serve. Her ball control has come around a lot, and Annemarie Hickey continues to improve as a defensive player.''

The Badgers have won five of their first six matches; the only loss coming to Creighton. "We're pretty much where I thought we would be,'' Waite said. "You'd prefer to be undefeated. You never want to lose. But at times you have to be pushed by the best. They have to show you your weaknesses.''

Besides the resiliency that Waite has seen in some areas, he has also seen his players "getting tighter as a unit.'' That bodes well for the future and Waite's objective to get everyone to "believe that they can be one of the best teams in the conference.''

That takes time and patience.

"But when they do that -- believe -- they play at a very high level,'' he said, "and that's exciting to see. It's starting to form, but it's not quite there yet ... non-conference play is huge for us. We've talked to the team about that. They're working as hard as they can to get up to speed as fast as they can.

"We're seeing some good things, and I like that.''

Lucas at Large: Badgers' approach is music to Wilkins' ears

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Three years ago, the Wisconsin women's soccer team learned an invaluable lesson at the expense of getting humbled in a 6-0 loss to No. 3 ranked Stanford.

The overmatched Badgers were outshot, 30-4.

But they could take some solace in knowing that Stanford would go on to win 25 straight before finally losing to North Carolina, 1-0, in the NCAA championship game.

The Badgers could also take pride in knowing that they turned around their season after that loss and made it all the way to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament before falling to Boston College.

Not only did it mark Wisconsin's best finish in the NCAAs since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 2001, it was the program's first Sweet 16 appearance in 16 years.

UW coach Paula Wilkins was reminded of that 2009 loss at Stanford the other day while discussing the positives that came out of 2-0 loss to top-ranked UCLA in Los Angeles last Friday night.

This was a far more competitive matchup; it was night and day, really.

Fact is, the Bruins didn't take the lead until the 78th minute and the Badgers were still on the attack in the final seconds after pulling goalkeeper Lauren Gunderson and using her in the box.

Wisconsin got one last shot at tying the game, but it was blocked and the deflection set up an uncontested breakaway by UCLA's Zakiya Bywaters, who sealed the victory with an empty-net goal.

Wilkins liked the way her players responded to the challenge; she liked the effort even more after learning from Monica Lam-Feist what had been said in a postgame huddle on the field.

If the Badgers were going to lose -- to paraphrase Lam-Feist -- they would go down fighting or by "throwing it all out there'' like they had against the Bruins. That was music to Wilkins' ears.

"This team is different than any team I've had in the past years,'' Wilkins said.

That was evident in the UW's season opener, a 1-0 victory over Notre Dame, the 2010 NCAA champions. Lam-Feist's goal gave the Badgers only their second win over the Irish in series history.

The only other victory came in 1989.

"Anytime you get a result against a team that has won national championships and is a perennial top-10 team in the national scene, it's important,'' said Wilkins, who won her first opener in five years. "It gives your team some confidence and makes them believe in what they can do.''

Wilkins emphasized afterward the need "to show people that it wasn't a fluke.''

She made that same point to her players prior to facing Loyola Marymount last Sunday.

"I told them after the Friday game I thought a lot of them had come to California just to play UCLA,'' she said, "and we can't lose sight of being consistent and committed to details in the next game. By getting four goals against Loyola it showed people that we weren't just a one-trick pony.''

The Badgers won 4-2 over Loyola Marymount and improved their record to 4-1.

"The biggest thing I'm happy about is that the players are committed to each other,'' Wilkins said. "I'm really excited about the dynamic they've created -- they really have a strong commitment to defending and attacking together and that mentality is carrying through a lot of games.''

The offense has been pretty noteworthy, too.

Wisconsin has scored 16 goals through five games.

The Badgers had 27 goals in 20 games last season.

"As a coach, you sleep a little better,'' Wilkins acknowledged.

The brunt of the offense has been generated among five players: Lam-Feist (3 goals, 15 shots), Paige Adams (3 goals, 10 shots), Kinley McNicoll, Kodee Williams and McKenna Meuer (2 goals each).

"Any given day,'' Wilkins said, "one of these kids is really good.''

Have there been one or two players that the others have rallied around?

"The upperclassmen are rallying around the freshmen,'' she said, "and the freshmen are rallying around the upperclassmen. It's a mutual respect for each other. Their work rate and energy is exciting.''

That's what she hasn't seen around here in a long time, she confessed.

After falling short of the NCAA tournament last season, Wilkins pointed out, "A lot of the juniors came in and said, 'We want to make a difference' and they really put the work in to build a relationship with the younger players and you can kind of see how they all believe in each other.''

That resolve was strengthened by how the Badgers played against UCLA. "I learned we're not as far off as we think we are, in terms of being competitive with the good teams,'' Wilkins said. "UCLA gave us the standard where we need to be and it's going to help us in training.''

To this end, the next two opponents -- Illinois State and Milwaukee -- will help the Badgers fine-tune their game and raise their level of play in preparation of a rugged Big Ten schedule, beginning with the conference opener Sept. 16 at Penn State.

While the offense has been a pleasant and welcome development, take it from Wilkins that her player's commitment to "defending has really made them a dangerous team'' -- one that may be capable of playing with anybody on any given day.

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The dawning of that first "Game Week'' is not only a starting point, but a finish line; whereby college football players are exiting the grind of training camp and entering a new season with the anticipation of basking in the sunlight that washes over every 0-0 team before that first kickoff.

It is no different for Wisconsin's starting safeties, Shelton Johnson and Dez Southward, who have their own "likes'' and "dislikes'' from three weeks of practices -- some two-a-days, some under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium -- all geared to get them ready for potentially a 14-game season.

"I like being able to focus on just football,'' said Johnson, a fifth-year senior from Carrollton, Texas. "During training camp, it's football all day -- this is unlike any other time of the year when you have academics and outside responsibilities -- and you have a good opportunity to get better every day.''

Citing the team camaraderie that has been building since the first practice on Aug. 6, Southward said, "It's a ton of time to get to know the guys around you. You learn the most about these people in training camp because you really get to focus just on football; really that's all there is here.''

That bonding process can lead to a special experience, according to Southward, a junior from Sunrise, Fla. It's special, he said, because it's shared with the "people who are with you on game day'' and the "guys you're going to war with.'' That would be the UW coaches and his teammates.

So what's there not to like about training camp?

"I dislike how my body feels,'' Johnson said. "It's a grind out here.''

"We all love to play football,'' said Southward, "but there's a certain point where your body ...''

He groaned out loud. How would he translate the body language? 

"It's like I need a break,'' he said.

That aside, Southward and Johnson have each tried to meet certain objectives in August.

"I came into camp to gain more confidence,'' said Southward, who has only three career starts. "I know what I can do; everybody knows what I can do. But I have to do it more consistently. I feel like I've been able to do that. Man, I'm light years where I was, and I'm excited about where I can get to.''

Southward didn't play organized football until his senior year of high school.

So his growing pains have been more pronounced than others.

"I still have things that I definitely have to get better at,'' he said.

Since one of his starting opportunities came in the Rose Bowl -- Johnson made room for him by shifting to nickel back -- what was the biggest lesson that Southward learned from last season?

"I remember a lot of mental breakdowns -- a lot of what-ifs, a lot of could've, would've, should've (against Oregon),'' he conceded. "From my point of view, I learned to keep grinding. I know that I've said training camp can be tough because it's just such a grind. But that's different.

"As far as grinding during a season, it's putting that last week behind you and putting everything into the week ahead. From that Tuesday when you get the game plan all the way through Friday, you have to learn as much as you can and truly go out and apply it on Saturdays.''

Johnson, the fourth-leading tackler and a tri-leader in interceptions with four last season, came into training camp with a different level of confidence than Southward. "But honestly I want to be more confident in my abilities,'' he said, "in what the coaches say is 'pulling the trigger' a bit more often.''

Pulling the trigger? "Taking a shot,'' Johnson explained. "I know last year when I did that -- when I pulled the trigger -- I was able to make some plays. What I learned was that the little things matter. The games at Michigan State and Ohio State really emphasized how it's a game of inches.''

Johnson and Southward's partnership at safety is just beginning to grow.

Their friendship as teammates as been maturing for years.

"Our relationship is good,'' Johnson said. "He was best friends with my roommate (former UW cornerback Antonio Fenelus). And since they were locked at the hip, he was always at the house.''

"From competing against him to now being across from him (in the deep secondary),'' Southward said, "it's been a blast and there's nobody in the country that I would rather go to war with.''

Regarding the graduation loss of Fenelus, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, Southward said, "We miss him already. He was in many ways the heart and soul of the DB group. He really brought us together. He made us laugh. He showed us how to work. He was a great example.''

Who fills that void? "We're filling that void right now collectively,'' Southward said. "When you see someone who's down, who's maybe not as excited as he was the day before, you try to pump him up a little bit. We've kind of done that as group -- me, Devin, Cro and Shelton.''

Devin is Devin Smith, who's returning from an injury redshirt.

Cro is Marcus Cromartie, who started 13 games at cornerback last season.

Along with Johnson, Smith and Cromartie are seniors.

"I guess I'm the young man,'' said Southward. Laughing, he added, "I still feel old.''

Johnson and Southward were on the same page when it came to describing the impact that first-year secondary coach Ben Strickland has had on their development during this training camp.

Strickland was one of the team captains of the 2007 UW team.

"Coach Strick gives us a different kind of perspective on the coaching side of things,'' Johnson said. "Typically during camp, you get the impression that the coaches really don't know what you're going through. But Coach Strick has been through all of this before as a player.''

Said Southward, "He's had a huge impact. He's one of the guys who has really helped me be more consistent. As soon as he got the job, he was straight-up with me. He told me, 'We believe in you, we understand you have a lot of talent, but we want to turn this talent into something special.'''

That's what Southward was yearning to hear. 

"He (has been there every step of the way with me,'' he said. "Anytime I struggle or I may get down on myself, he's right there to pick me up with a word of encouragement. It's great to have people like that in your corner.''

Johnson could say the same thing after being elected as one of six UW team captains.

"Having your teammates, the people that you're around every day, show their respect back to you is a real honor,'' Johnson said. "Especially coming from the position I was in my freshman year. I really didn't know if I was going to be here or not.''

Feeling like he had slipped through the cracks, Johnson considered leaving the program.

"It goes through everyone's mind as you start slipping down that depth chart,'' Johnson said. "Even my roommate (Fenelus) thought about leaving for a second. Everybody reaches that breaking point where either you can pack up and move on, or you can get it together.''

He chose the latter, and he's glad that he did.

Lucas at Large: Drewiske's day with the Cup a revelation?

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Former Wisconsin hockey defenseman Davis Drewiske resisted the temptation to read the handwriting on the wall Sunday; especially since it pertained to the "handwriting'' on the Cup, the Stanley Cup, which was scheduled for a public showing Monday in Drewiske's hometown of Hudson.

As a member of the National Hockey League champions, the Los Angeles Kings, the 27-year-old Drewiske was looking forward to having the Stanley Cup in his possession even though he was unsure if his name was going to be actually engraved on the Cup along with the names of his teammates.

That's because Drewiske appeared in only nine games for the Kings. By NHL rule, he needed to appear in either 41 regular season games or dress for at least one game in the finals against the New Jersey Devils to meet the qualifying standards for getting his name on the Cup, and he did neither.

But the league has been known to make some exceptions.

Drewiske will have to wait until Monday to find out officially.

The Cup won't be in his hands until then. (On Sunday, he said, it was somewhere in Ontario.)

All things considered, he was relatively confident that he could be a name-dropper, so to speak.

"I don't have confirmation on that yet, but I think I do (have his name on the Cup), I'm just not sure,'' Drewiske said. "I did have confirmation on the spelling of my name from someone within the team. But I don't want to get too excited until I know for sure.

"It's just an honor to have the Stanley Cup for a day and I want to share that with some people who have helped me along the way; family especially. I'm just excited for that. I would have liked to have played more and been a bigger part of everything. Sometimes things work out in funny ways.''

Drewiske was the seventh defenseman on a Kings team that regularly played six.

"I didn't play very much because we basically had no injuries the entire year which was the good news for our team and maybe not such a good thing for me personally,'' said Drewiske who was stacked behind Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene in the blue line rotation.

"The guys (defensemen) played really well and stayed healthy. I played well when I got to play and it was my job to stay ready in case anyone got hurt, work hard and take warm-ups every night. It was not an easy thing to do, but I'll be better for it in the long running.

"I know I can play; I've played very well at times for the organization. I've tried to take it one day at a time. I'll be ready for the opportunity, whether that opportunity is going to come with Los Angeles or someone else. We'll see. I'm trying to stay confident in getting ready for next year.''

After the Kings, an improbable No. 8 seed, ended a 45-year drought by winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup, Drewiske, wearing his No. 44 jersey, celebrated on the ice following Game 6. Along with everyone else, he got a chance to hoist the Cup and take part in one of the great rituals in sports.

"I was really excited for my teammates,'' said Drewiske, who was signed by the Kings as an undrafted free agent after his senior year in 2008. "We have great guys in that locker room who have been really good to me. The best part for me was seeing the genuine excitement from everybody.''

Drewiske is no stranger to such on-ice celebrations. In 2006, he celebrated with his Wisconsin teammates after winning the NCCA championship. Three late-round draft picks from that team have since overcome the odds and made their mark as pros: Brian Elliott, Adam Burish and Joe Pavelski.

Asked when he first began having visions of playing someday in the NHL - maybe even winning the Cup - Drewiske said, "When I was in college, I was more worried about being able to play for the Badgers than thinking too far ahead. During my junior year, I thought I might have a chance.

"I had a lot of good coaching along the way. I just tried to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities that I got. My dad went to grad school at UW, and that's where I was born, so it was definitely a dream-come-true for me to play college hockey for the Badgers.''

His mom and dad, Karen and Dave Drewiske, will be in the Stanley Cup loop Monday. The plan was to pick up the Cup at the airport and make a few stops in Minneapolis - where Davis and his wife live - before making the trip to Hudson. It will be on display at the Civic Center that evening.

"There might be a few beverages in the Cup throughout the day,'' Davis Drewiske said.

There may even be a toast or two to the Hudson Hockey Association which is one of the more prominent youth organizations in the state.  "My parents were a big part of that when I was growing up,'' Drewiske said. "Hockey is a big part of the culture in Hudson. It's a special community.''

That's why he was anxious to see how the Stanley Cup would be received Monday.

"Obviously, the Cup, itself, is a cool thing; there's a lot of history there,'' Drewiske said. "I'm just as excited or more excited to see all those people in Hudson and be able to say thanks in a small way for everything they've done for me and my family.''

As of Sunday, though, there was still that uncertainty on whether his name will be engraved on the Stanley Cup. What will be the first thing that he does when the Cup arrives? "I don't know if it will be the first thing,'' he said, "but I'm sure I'll take a peek not too long after we get it.''

He's hoping for the best; a priceless moment.  "Your name is there forever on the Stanley Cup,'' he said. "It would be an honor to be on there with all the guys who have been honored before.''

Lucas at Large: Confidence and consistency key for kickers

FB_120825_French_Kyle.jpegBy his own admission, Jack Russell sank to a new personal depth on the same day that Wisconsin's first fall depth chart was released and Russell was listed on the top line as the Badgers' No. 1 placekicker, ahead of Kyle French.  By contrast, French began the day on a "low'' and finished on a "high.''

None of it was a coincidence.

After Russell made only 2-of-4 field goal attempts at the end of last Monday's practice, he admitted, "I didn't necessarily feel pressure (to validate being No. 1 on the depth chart) but I felt that I needed to be more focused and that caused me to make a couple of mistakes.''

After French went a perfect 4-for-4 in the same drill, he said, "When I saw that I was listed as the No. 2 field goal kicker -- actually Coach (Charlie) Partridge told me that morning -- it kind of gave me a bump. But the other thing that it did was it kind of relaxed me.''

Wisconsin natives Russell, a freshman walk-on from Waunakee, and French, a redshirt sophomore from Menomonee Falls, have been volleying back and forth throughout camp in a spirited, but friendly, competition punctuated by good days and inconsistent ones -- to the learning benefit of each kicker.

"Jack and I love competing,'' French said.

"I've tried to learn something out of every drill,'' Russell added.

The Badgers are looking to replace Philip Welch, who finished with the second-highest career field goal percentage (.776) in school history behind Matt Davenport (.868); the second-most field goals made (59) behind Todd Gregoire (65); and the second-most career points (384) behind Ron Dayne (426).

While Welch was sidelined with an injury at the start of the 2011 season,  French got some valuable game experience and converted on 3-of-5 field goals and 26-of-27 extra points. (Welch returned for Big Ten play and made 5-of-6 overall, including a season-long 52-yarder against Purdue.)

It was generally assumed that French would replace Welch and handle all the placements this season while Russell would be the kickoff specialist; an assignment that was split between Welch and Alec Lerner last year. At least that was the assumption going into the training camp.

When the depth chart came out, the roles were reversed.

"The first week I felt very confident and I was kicking well,'' French said. "But once I ended up having a 2-for-4 day, I just got kind of overwhelmed. Once you brought the adrenaline-type of situations into it, I kind of -- not really freaked out -- but my body started doing things that it didn't normally do.''

French noted that he got positive reinforcement from UW assistant coach Charlie Partridge, who's in charge of the field goal operation. "Working with Coach Partridge,'' he said, "we worked on 'calming yourself down and keeping your composure' before each kick and that's helped a lot.''

Although he was disappointed last Monday to be listed No. 2 on the depth chart, French hinted that it served as the equivalent of a wake-up call. "It was a big motivating day for me,'' he said, stressing, "This is your time to prove to them (the coaches) and yourself that you belong in the No. 1 spot.''

French had nothing but praise for Russell's competitiveness."Throughout the summer, I definitely thought he was much better at kickoffs than field goals,'' French said. "Field-goal wise, he surprised me a lot. When he came out here (to training camp), he just had that confidence.''

Russell was definitely riding a wave of momentum. In mid-July, he kicked a 49-yard field goal in the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-Star Game for divisions 1-3 in Oshkosh. In his final prep game, he kicked a 48-yarder as Waunakee won its third straight WIAA Division 2 state championship.

"My expectation was to just compete,'' said Russell, a preferred walk-on. "I didn't come in necessarily with any expectations that I was going to start (off as the No. 1 placekicker). I knew that I had to come out and compete and give it my best and go from there.

"I try not to put pressure on myself. But I know my family and friends -- Waunakee is close (to Madison) -- are really keeping tab on the Badgers. And after the depth chart came out, I got a lot of texts, calls and comments on Facebook that made me feel really good.''

One of those calls was from former UW placekicker Taylor Mehlhaff, who has been serving as a mentor to Russell. Only Gregoire and Welch kicked more career field goals than Mehlhaff (50), a two-time first-team All-Big Ten pick and a sixth-round draft choice of the New Orleans Saints in 2008.

Mehlhaff, who has been conducting camps and tutoring kickers around the country, recently joined the University of Tennessee coaching staff as an administrative intern for special teams.

"I actually consider him family with as much as he's taught me,'' Russell said of Mehlhaff. "I talked to him for about a half-hour Monday. He congratulated me and told me, 'Just because that's what it is (No. 1) on the depth chart right now, it doesn't mean that I can take any breaks.'''

Shortly after Russell made the conversion from soccer to football -- a transition that has only been three years in the making -- he was introduced to Mehlhaff at a kicking camp on the UW campus. "He asked if he could work with me privately,'' Russell said, "and it has taken off from there.''

There's one piece of advice that has stuck with him, too. "Keep your eyes back, not necessarily your head, when kicking,'' he said. "You want to try and watch your foot and make contact with the ball. Even if you have a bad swing, if you're good with your eyes, you'll make most of your kicks.''

French also has a mentor in Jamie Kohl, a former Iowa State kicker who's the director of the Kohl kicking, punting and snapping camps, one of which is based out of Waukesha. "I worked a lot with him,'' French said, "and any time I have questions, he's very good about responding back.''

Russell and French subscribe to the same motivational author, Tim Gallwey, who has written a series of books that focus on mind-over- matter training methods related to "The Inner Game.''

French has read "The Inner Game of Golf.''

"I believe golf and kicking are very similar; no matter where you are, it's always the same stroke, obviously except when you're chipping,'' French said. "The book has allowed me to kind of clear the mechanism in pressure situations. I've applied a lot that I've learned from the book to my kicking game.''

Russell is currently reading "The Inner Game of Tennis.''

"Taylor (Mehlhaff) was the first one to introduce me to the book,'' he said. "He has been a big proponent of the mental side of the game and I finally got around to reading the book this summer. Last Monday, I just picked up where I last left off, and where I picked up was exactly what I needed (to read).''

This was after missing a couple of field goals at the end of Monday's practice.

"I needed to relax my mind,'' Russell said, "and not be too focused on kicking.''

Between now and the Sept. 1 opener, Russell and French will each be working on writing the next chapter to their competition, which could very well continue throughout the 2012 season, barring any more unexpected plot twists.

Lucas at Large: For captains, election is a high honor

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At about the same time Tuesday that Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland was sitting in a team meeting and learning that he had been named one of six captains for the 2012 season, ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit was announcing the winners of his 12th-annual "Herbie Awards."

Borland won in the category for "Best Instincts'' beating out Kansas State's Arthur Brown, USC's Dion Bailey, Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, and Mississippi State's Cameron Lawrence.

After Wednesday's practice, Borland was quick to point out that the captaincy outweighed just about everything else, including the "Herbie.''

"Not even close,'' Borland said. "No disrespect to Kirk Herbstreit, but it's not even close. He was just looking out for a fellow Daytonian. He's from the next town over.''

Herbstreit is from Centerville, Ohio, while Borland is from Kettering.

Both are Dayton suburbs, and they're about two miles apart.

Another UW player, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, was also nominated for a "Herbie'' in the category of "Best Backyard Player.'' The award went to Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller.

Herbstreit, who turned 53 last Sunday, selected UW tailback Montee Ball as his Player of the Year in the Big Ten. That, too, was trumped by a far greater honor: Ball was elected a Badger captain.

"That's very important, very important,'' Ball said. "It shows how much respect the team has for you, and it's an honor and a blessing that they nominated me. I'm not going to let them down.''

While deliberating over whether he should enter the NFL draft or return for his senior year, Ball reminded himself that "it was always a dream of mine to be a captain of a Division I program.''

But did he wonder how his off-the-field incidents might now factor into the voting for captain?

"It was in the back of my mind,'' he said. "But I shouldn't have thought that way because of the team we have. They're a bunch of great guys and they've been behind me 100 percent the whole time.''

Borland confirmed as much. "I thought Montee would be a captain,'' he said. "And he deserves it by the way he has worked and the way he conducts himself. He's one of our leaders.''

Joining Ball and Borland as captains are offensive tackle Rick Wagner, center Travis Frederick, linebacker Mike Taylor and safety Shelton Johnson. Borland and Frederick are juniors.

"I voted for Travis and myself during the team vote,'' Borland said. "I felt we were two good guys for the job regardless of our age.

"It's an honor (to be named captain). It's not something that we take lightly here and I certainly don't, either. So it means a lot to me.''

Borland was a captain of his Archbishop Alter High School team as a senior.

"The situation is pretty similar,'' he said. "We've got a lot of guys this year who aren't captains but who are good leaders. It was the same way in high school.

"There are differences (in all six captains). But we all work hard and we treat each other with respect --  from Montee Ball, a Heisman candidate, to the last guy on the roster.''

Borland agreed that Taylor and Wagner are more reticent than the others.

"They're both smart with their words,'' he said. "They're not chatterboxes. When they speak up, it's because something is really important and they say it with conviction. The guys believe in them.

"We all lead by example. There's not a very vocal guy in the group. Montee's probably the most outspoken. Everybody has just worked hard their whole careers; we try to do all the right things.''

Ball was raised in Wentzville, Mo., and was a three-year captain at Timberland High School.

"As a captain, everyone is looking to you when adversity strikes on the field,'' Ball said. "And, of course, adversity is going to strike this season just like it did last season and the season before.

"When it does, I'm going to make sure I show up and be a playmaker.''

Noting the diversity in personalities of the Badgers' captains, Ball said, "We all bring something different to the table. What we have in common is that we show up every day and you know what to expect from us.''

Nobody is shy about expressing their opinion, either.

During Wednesday's practice, for instance, the Badgers were sporting the all-red helmets that they will be wearing for the Big Ten opener at Nebraska. Ball liked them, Borland didn't.

"I actually do like them; they fit comfortably,'' Ball said. "It changes it up a little bit.''

When Borland was asked about the helmets, he smiled and said, "Off the record?''

Shrugging his shoulders, he stressed, "I really don't care. I'd play in a purple helmet.''

Later, he explained, "I'm kind of a traditionalist. I like our jerseys and our helmets the way they are. But it's all good. It's a nice changeup and I think the fans will like them.''

ON WISCONSIN