Madison, WI – Wisconsin freshman forward Alex Illikainen has only played 5.2 minutes per game and appeared in nine of the Badgers’ 11 games thus far this season. Still, the 6’9″ Minnesota native has become part of the rotation as a true freshman, and has proven to be an efficient player for the Badgers.

Associate head coach Greg Gard spoke briefly about Illikainen after practice on Monday as well, reaffirming that Illikainen is a part of the team’s rotation: “Alex has been in the rotation, just not as much in depth and minutes…A lot of it is Coach [Bo Ryan]’s decision on his feeling during games. What’s the right matchup, and who’s playing well, maybe who’s struggling with situations, or the typical – specific matchup we’re in, or how on someone is playing. That really dictates – he doesn’t go in with a script of how or who he wants to play and how many minutes.”

As you’ll read in the interview from after Monday’s practice below, Illikainen has become much more confident and comfortable throughout his first semester of college. He even told me, “I’m ready to step up. I feel that I could go in there, hold my own and produce, and do positive things out on the court.”

Zach Rosen (ZR): I like to look at the team’s advanced stats. I’ve noticed although your sample size is small, the stats are in your favor. Do you think that efficiency has given you confidence?

Alex Illikainen (AI): “With the time that I get, it’s pretty tough to get in there and do something because all the other guys are in the flow of the game and I’m just kinda steppin’ in. I feel like me being able to put up, get a couple shots to go in, get a couple of steals or a rebound or something like, definitely makes my short amount of time great. I mean, if I wasn’t doing anything, I wouldn’t be mad, but I feel like it’s just helping me be more confident knowing I can step in, hit a jump shot, do something positive, and come out and just be helping the team. I feel like if I was going in there and not doing anything and just hurting the team, my confidence would be way down, but that’s not how I feel.”

ZR: With that, where do you feel like you fit for this team?

AI: “I mean that’s a tough one. It really changes who’s on the court, I think. Because in practice I’ve been put in some pretty different situations. Just say I subbed in for Nigel in practice and I have Ethan and Vitto on the court, so that means I’m kinda kickin’ out to the corner a little bit more, a little perimeter play. Sometimes I’m the 5, so I mean, I just gotta be versatile. I just gotta – wherever Coach puts me in, I gotta be able to do what that guy is – that position is supposed to do. So I think that’s one thing they like about me is that I can kinda play wherever.”

ZR: Do you think that’s something that this team needs more of right now? Do you think you can bring something to this team that it’s missing?

AI: “I think what the team is missing is – really – just us doing the small things. The past couple of games we’ve been losing by a bucket or two. Us younger guys just have to do the small things, get that extra boxout, get the rebound that went through your hands…But I mean not necessarily need more guys like my type or whatever. We just need to do what we’re good at it and try to eliminate the stuff that we’re bad at.”

ZR: Do you feel like you’ve learned a lot so far just in this first semester at school?

AI: “It’s crazy. People said that – like I knew coming here that this was a great school – a challenging school. I didn’t know like what to think if that was all say, but it’s definitely a challenging school. And I like it. I mean, I’ve learned a lot, I’ve been put in some new situations with new things that I have to learn and do for homework and exams and stuff. I mean, it was tough, it was good. I learned a lot.”

ZR: On the court, do you think you’ve grown a lot as well in the last couple of months as a player as much as you have in the classroom and on campus?

AI: “I think I’m just starting to get really used to it. My routine is getting to be the same every day, and I think that’s huge. The first couple months I was trying new things, but now I’m really patterned – class, workout, eat, and then it just makes it so much easier. A lot less stressful and I’m a lot more comfortable on the court. So I think I’m definitely getting the hang of college.”

ZR: Back to the rotation, have the coaches explicitly told you you’re in the rotation?

AI: “Throughout a practice, I can be shifted to the scout team and the starting team three or four times. It just depends how you’re playing. I’d like to say I’m in the rotation, but it really depends who we’re playing, and like who he [Bo Ryan] thinks can defend the best or do this. If he sees a guy on the court that I can, like, do better than, he’s going to put me on the court. I don’t know, it’s tough. I’d say I’m in the rotation, but I can easily be out of the rotation [laughs].”

ZR: Good answer [laughs]. Obviously the news last night with Riley, how did the guys react and just coming to the program and thinking, ‘wow, that could just happen?’

AI: “I knew Riley just a little bit before I got here [from Minnesota], like we basically just knew the names of each other. But since I’ve gotten here, he’s been a great kid, great teammate, a friend. So it really sucks that he has to go. I’m happy for him that he made the decision to go because he’s going to do good and it’s a good opportunity for him. But, it sucks to see a teammate go and have to leave. I think, especially the guys who have bene here with him and his roommates and all that stuff, it’s even harder for them. It sucks, but I wish him good luck, and I hope he has a great career.”

ZR: One last question. You weren’t here the past couple years, but even for me as a student on this campus, the vibes are so different about Wisconsin basketball. What do you think this team can do to uplift that again?

AI: “It comes down to winning. The fans aren’t going to care if you win by 30 or win by 2 points. If you get the W, that’s all that counts. We just gotta put it together, get all the pieces, do the small things – those details, and I think we can come out on top for the rest of the year.”

Photo taken by Rebecca Haas,