March 26, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
ANAHEIM -- When somebody in the back of the team bus yelled out “Jack in the Box” it was met with relative indifference from 19-year-old freshman Jordan Hill, the only Californian on the Wisconsin roster. Hill would take an In-N-Out burger over the field.
The Badgers practiced Tuesday afternoon at 4,000-seat Titan Gym on the campus of Cal State Fullerton, which is about a 45-minute drive from Hill’s home in Pasadena. “Maybe an hour to 90 minutes with traffic,” he said. “It all depends on the traffic.”
Spoken like a true Southern California native. But he would gladly take gridlock over a Midwest winter. “I’ve had this big smile on my face ever since they told us we were about to land,” said Hill, who began to “decompress” at the mere thought of returning to home turf.
Although he hasn’t spent a lot of time in Orange County, he’s familiar with the surroundings. As a youngster, he attended some games at Angel Stadium, which is across the highway from the Honda Center, once known as the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim.
Hill saw the Ducks play there once -- not the Emilio Estevez-led Mighty Ducks, but the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks. He has also played an AAU tournament in the Honda Center, the site of Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup between the Badgers and the mighty Bears of Baylor.
Yes, they’re mighty big, mighty long, mighty good, too.
During Tuesday’s practice, Hill was in his customary spot on the scout team simulating the opponent’s point guard; in this case, Baylor’s 5-foot-11 Kenny Chery, a dynamic playmaker and scorer. “He definitely is their catalyst,” Hill said.
When Chery was out of the lineup because of a turf toe injury, the Bears had trouble beating anyone. At one low point, they were 2-8 in the Big 12. But since getting back to form, Chery has been a driving force behind Baylor winning 12 of its last 14 games.
All of Chery’s estimable skills were on display in a double-overtime win against Kansas State in mid-February. He had 20 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds to record the sixth triple-double in school history. Chery hit four triples in Baylor’s most recent win over Creighton.
“When the defense has to guard him, it’s a problem because you can’t help as much on the big guys down low,” Hill observed. “When you have a point guard you have to stay true to and worry about his pull-up jumper and guard straight-up, it’s tough on a defense.”
Hill would like to be that kind of a player someday for the Badgers. “I see myself as a point guard,” said the 6-3, 170-pound Hill. “But wherever Coach (Bo Ryan) wants to play me later on in my career, that’s fine. I just want to get on the court.”
|“When you have a point guard you have to stay true to and worry about his pull-up jumper and guard straight-up, it’s tough on a defense.” Hill said of Baylor’s Kenny Chery (above).
After opting not to redshirt this season, Hill has appeared in just 10 games, usually long after the outcome has been determined. He has played a total of 24 minutes, including two minutes against American University in the opening game of the NCAA tournament.
“It’s been a learning process and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating,” conceded Hill, one of six freshmen that travel with the team. “I’m a competitor, so I want to be on the floor; I want to be doing something to help the team at all times.
“Right now, my role is limited so I’ve got to do what I can do in practice to improve myself and learn from who’s ahead of me so I can get on the court and do what they’re doing. I think my shooting and my decision-making has come a long ways.”
The UW coaching staff likes Hill’s defensive tenacity. Hill and Zak Showalter, a sophomore redshirt, can pressure the ball, pressure full-court, if needed, and have been the pit bulls on the scout team. “That’s my strong suit,” Hill agreed. “Defensively, I’ve just been trying to improve. It’s a matter of fitting into the system and trying to learn our rules.”
But he doesn’t want to be labeled as a player who can only play defense because that would hint of perceived shortcomings on offense. “People can say whatever they want,” Hill said. “But I know I can still score and dish the ball out when need be and handle the game. I’m going to stay confident and true to my ability.”
If nothing else, Hill has shown the ability to adjust, competitively and socially, to different playing situations and environments. After graduating from LaSalle High School in Pasadena, he spent one year at a prep school, Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
“It was just a complete change in culture,” he said, “to go from being in a private Catholic school all the way across the country to a boarding school in New England. It was a whole different lifestyle. Very preppie. Basketball wasn’t that big of a deal there. People were more worried about academics at Exeter, and hockey.”
Not only did Hill work on his game, but he took advantage of the school’s impeccable academic credentials to create friendships while networking. “It’s a huge network with some very powerful people,” he said. “That was a big deal. Life is about connections.”
The Badgers offered Hill after Ryan saw him play in an AAU tournament in Chicago. Instead of waiting to see if Stanford, which showed early interest, would come through with a scholarship, Hill picked Wisconsin over some Ivy League options, Yale and Brown.
He loves everything about Madison except the weather. Can you blame him?
“Once it got into the negatives the first time,” he said, “I was floored.”
But he has tried to make a positive out of everything else. And that extended to his play on the scout team during Tuesday’s practice. “The ultimate goal is to prepare the first team for what they’re going to see, so we have to keep that in mind,” he said.
On these days, when he’s impersonating someone else, Chery, for instance, Hill is still building his own game. “I try to take advantage of it every time I can,” he said, “to work on my ball-handling and my leadership and on making sure people get to the right places.”
The Badgers wanted to practice someplace close to their hotel -- it’s all about the traffic in this part of the world -- so they wound up at Fullerton, the largest campus in the state system with over 38,000 enrollment.
The school is known for its NCAA championship baseball teams and some of its more famous alums: Kevin Costner, Gwen Stefani and Cedric Ceballos.
The 2008 Fullerton basketball team was a No. 14 seed and a 71-56 loser to Wisconsin in the NCAA tourney at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb.
Hill was not recruited by Fullerton, but he did consider Cal State Northridge, where his uncle played football. At that, there will be no shortage of family and friends at Thursday’s game which will keep a smile on Hill’s face.
“As fast as it gets sometimes living in California,” he said of the celebrated lifestyle, “people are very relaxed, very chill. Even inland, there’s a beach mentality to relax, kick back and have a good time.”
Wednesday’s forecast called for a high of 68. He wasn’t the only one smiling in the UW travel party.