Transfer boosts Badgers hoops

Michael Dougherty

Wisconsin’s Kohl Center is about 375 miles and a world away from St. Cloud State’s Halenbeck Hall.
But Badgers guard Jon Bryant has made a smooth transition from playing for the Division II Huskies to playing a key role in No. 12 Wisconsin’s surprising start.
The Badgers were picked by many to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten, but their quick start (18-3, 6-2 in the Big Ten) finds them in second place in the standings behind defending regular-season champs Michigan State. Bryant himself said the team’s start is a bit startling.
“There’s some of us that are surprised,” Bryant said. “But now we’re a pretty confident team, yet we don’t go into any games thinking we can blow anyone out.”
Bryant, however, might be a bigger surprise than his team’s early success. The 6-foot-2 junior spent his first two years of eligibility playing for Butch Raymond at St. Cloud State, where he was the North Central Conference freshman of the year and made the all-NCC team both seasons.
He grew up in Plymouth, Minn., and played basketball for Larry Weum at Armstrong High School. Bryant is the school’s all-time leader in points, assists, three-point shots and free throws.
After averaging 8.4 points per game and shooting a school-record 57 percent from three-point range as a freshman, Bryant talked to Raymond about transferring to Wisconsin.
But Raymond and Bennett told Bryant they thought he would be better off staying at St. Cloud for another year.
Bryant was convinced to stay for his sophomore season, but after averaging 17.3 p.p.g., both he and Raymond left the school. Raymond took over as athletic director at Southwest State in Marshall, Minn., and Bryant took off to Madison.
Bryant said the move to Madison is paying off for all involved. Although he is only averaging 6.5 p.p.g., he has averaged 17 points in Wisconsin’s last three games. He hit six of 11 three-point shots and scored 22 points in just 16 minutes in Wisconsin’s 72-52 win at Iowa on Saturday.
“I think I’m just getting more comfortable in the system, and we’re playing better as a team,” Bryant said.
Weum said that while Bryant was happy flourishing at St. Cloud, Big Ten basketball always held a special meaning for him.
“John had always dreamed of playing in the Big Ten,” Weum said. “So when Butch left they contacted Bennett again just to see if there was any possibility of playing at Wisconsin.”
After sitting out a year because of the transfer rule and changing his shot to quicken his release for the tougher Division I competition, Bryant’s dream is coming true. But he wasn’t always sure he made the right choice.
“I would have doubts on certain days about whether or not I could play at this level,” he said.
Weum and Raymond, however, both said they were certain Bryant could make it at Wisconsin. And although Bryant is doing well, Weum still talks about one weakness Bryant had when he played for him — and still has now.
“The biggest knock on Jon has always been that he’s such an unselfish player,” Weum said. “Sometimes he turns down shots, and Dick Bennett wants him to shoot. That’s why he’s on the floor.”
Weum said Bryant’s game is a perfect fit for a Bennett team. He said Bryant doesn’t have the quickness to play in other types of programs, adding that Bryant has to rely on screens to free him for open shots.
“That’s why Clem (Gophers coach Clem Haskins) never expressed any interest in him,” Weum said.
Bryant, however, said he knew he wouldn’t fit into Haskins’ program right away because at the time Minnesota was coming off a Final Four season and had a plethora of guards.
“It wasn’t really a lack of contact on Coach Haskins’ part,” Bryant said. “I just didn’t contact them because I didn’t think it was the right system for me.”
Bennett’s system, however, seems to be the perfect one for the Badgers and Bryant.
“It’s a dream come true for me,” Bryant said. “To me it was a bigger deal to play in a program that has a shot to go to the NCAA tournament and play in a conference like the Big Ten than it was to stay at St. Cloud.”