MADISON, Wis. Wisconsin guard Zak Showalter stopped by Bo Ryan's office recently to discuss the prospects of playing time. The freshman offered no demands, and his coach provided no guarantees. Instead, Showalter extended a simple message: If you need me, I'm here.
It was Showalter's way of expressing a willingness to burn a redshirt season, even if his minutes would be limited and sporadic. Wisconsin's guard depth had been depleted after starting point guard Josh Gasser went down with a season ending ACL tear, creating a small opening for Showalter off the bench.
Ryan saw enough of Showalter to know he possessed the talent to play immediately. And sure enough, Showalter raced off the bench to the scorer's table Sunday during the second half of Wisconsin's season-opening 87-47 victory against Southeastern Louisiana. In nine minutes, he scored five points with three rebounds and two assists, providing the same toughness he demonstrated in practice.
"Defensively, and some of the hustle plays that he's capable of making and he already did (Sunday), he's more or less the fourth guard," Ryan said. "He's contributing. He contributed (Sunday), and he'll contribute some more."
The redshirt opportunity this season is gone. And that's just fine with Showalter, who is behind guards George Marshall, Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson in the playing rotation. He is simply thankful for the opportunity to play, which would not have been available if Gasser were healthy.
"Being fifth deep in a rotation is tough," Showalter said. "It would have been a waste of my time to try to get some minutes here and there. Now you never know what can happen. If he would have been here, I probably would have redshirted for sure."
Showalter's rise at Wisconsin has been swift. He is a player Ryan has kept an eye on for years because Showalter's dad, Steve, played for Ryan at UW-Platteville from 1985-89. But those ties didn't guarantee Showalter any playing time.
In March, Showalter was admitted to school at Wisconsin and announced as a preferred walk-on to the team. Three months later, he earned a scholarship left vacant by forward Jarrod Uthoff, who transferred to Iowa. During summer workouts and fall pickup games, Showalter held his own and demonstrated he could compete at the highest level of college basketball.
In the process, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Germantown, Wis., native, quickly earned the respect of his teammates for his scrappiness and fearlessness, whether it involved diving for loose balls, attacking the rim or fighting through screens.
"He looks like a wrestler," Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz said. "Especially with his ears and his body type. But he plays extremely hard. A lot of people, you can talk about a guy's jump shot and his ball handling. That's fine. At the end of the day, when I'm picking a team in open gym, I want the guys that play the hardest. You point at the guys on our team, and Showalter is definitely one of them."
One of the traits that makes Showalter such a fit in Wisconsin's system is his loyalty to the program. He turned down roughly 15 scholarship offers to walk on at Wisconsin. Of course, his physical gifts certainly don't hurt his chances of playing. During Sunday's season opener, for example, Showalter came flying through the lane and nearly stuck a putback dunk. Even while being fouled on the play, he sent a shock through the Kohl Center.
"He just kind of is an energizer bunny," Wisconsin assistant coach Greg Gard said. "He's all over the place. The missed tip slam, we see those sometimes twice a day. He just makes things happen and plays so hard that good things happen."
Showalter averaged 22.4 points, 5.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game for Germantown High School as a senior last season in leading the Warhawks to a state championship. The biggest adjustment in college, he said, was physicality of the players.
Coaches and teammates remain confident Showalter will have no problem familiarizing himself with the college game. All Showalter needs is playing time and it appears that's exactly what he's going to earn this season.
"Everything has happened so fast," Showalter said. "I was a walk-on not really expecting anything. I didn't know how much I was going to play in my four-year career. And all of a sudden, I got a scholarship. I'm looking at what could happen down the road the next couple of years. And then Josh goes down. I'm just going to try to take advantage of every opportunity that I get."
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