Alex Illikainen came to Wisconsin ranked as the #1 recruit in the state of Minnesota by ESPN and 247 Sports for the class of 2015. On Wednesday night, Illikainen will return home when the Badgers take on the Gophers at 8:00 PM CT on Big Ten Network.

“[I’m] just excited, not really nervous,” the Grand Rapids, MN native said after practice on Monday. “It’s just another basketball game. But, it’ll be cool to play at Williams Arena again. I played there in high school for the state tournament.”

The freshman forward will have family members, some friends, and coaches in the stands. “I’m sure there will be people I don’t know yet [that] are going,” Illikainen explained.

Illikainen, who has averaged 2.6 points in 10.9 minutes per game and appeared in all but two games this season, was recruited by several schools including Minnesota. He is very familiar with Minnesota’s players, staff, and the campus. The 6’8″ forward played with Minnesota’s fellow freshman Jarvis Johnson over the summer, and he played against Minnesota senior Joey King a few years ago.

Despite growing up in Minnesota, Illikainen asserts he did not grow up as much of a Gopher fan. He became a fan only early in high school, mainly since it was his home state’s team, which is why he roots for the Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild, and Twins.

“I never really had a passion for being a Gopher fan,” Illikainen said. “But yeah, I cheered for them.”

Wisconsin has had a few quiet years in the Gopher territory for a program with a history of recruiting key Minnesotans such as Jon Leuer, Jordan Taylor, Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz, and Kammron Taylor. After Riley Dearring transferred in December, Illikainen and senior Jordan Smith became the only two Badgers on the current roster from Minnesota.

Still, Illikainen thinks the Badgers will continue to recruit in Minnesota. “There’s always a steady stream of great players coming out of Minnesota,” Illikainen said. “Not always McDonalds All-Americans, but they’re always good, solid players.”

As Illikainen mentioned, Wisconsin does love to recruit good, solid players. Take Illikainen for example; he may not be the most athletic player, the best shooter, or biggest guy in the post, but he does all of the little things only as a freshman. And guess who recruited Illikainen? Greg Gard.

Months later, Illikainen may have last left a court in Minnesota as the highest-ranked player in the state, but he remains modest about his return.

“It doesn’t add any pressure or anything like that. There’s a lot of other great players coming out of high school too, and rankings aren’t everything. I just need to go in there and do what I need to do to get this win.”


Featured photos courtesy of Gopher Hole and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Athletic Department.