Wisconsin’s faith in freshman guard Hepburn has huge upsides

Wisconsin guard Chucky Hepburn (23) walks past Rutgers guard Geo Baker during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022 in Piscataway, NJ (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Wisconsin guard Chucky Hepburn (23) walks past Rutgers guard Geo Baker during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022 in Piscataway, NJ (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

PA

Wisconsin showed their faith in Chucky Hepburn months ago by making him the Badgers’ first true freshman in two decades to start a freshman season.

Hepburn has rewarded that faith ever since.

The 6-foot-2 point guard made one of the biggest shots in recent program history on Tuesday to help the 10th-ranked Badgers beat No. 8 Purdue 70-67 and wrap up a part of the Big Ten title. Wisconsin (24-5, 15-4) can win the championship Sunday by beating Nebraska (9-21, 3-16).

“That would mean everything,” Hepburn said.

Hepburn says a Big Ten title would mean more than what he would do for the Wisconsin program. Hepburn has used this season to honor his close friend, 20-year-old Vincent Burns, who died in January.

“I want to do everything I can to compete for him,” said Hepburn, who was so close to Burns that he calls him a brother. “It’s in my head every day. He never left my head.

Burns was shot and killed Jan. 22 outside a bar in Omaha, Nebraska. Hepburn returned to his home state less than a week later and scored 13 points in a 73-65 win over Nebraska before heading to his friend’s funeral.

Hepburn played arguably his best basketball in the six weeks since.

“Honestly, we didn’t know if he would be able to continue playing for the next few weeks,” assistant coach Dean Oliver said. “You never know how long it’s going to take to deal with something like this. He’s just an incredibly tough kid.

Hepburn’s tenacity was evident to the Badgers long before that.

Head coach Greg Gard cites Hepburn’s moxie, maturity, field vision and feel for the game while explaining the decision to make him the first true Wisconsin freshman to start a season since 2001 The last freshman to do so was Devin Harris, who went on to play 15 seasons in the NBA.

“I told him in July,” Gard said. “I said, ‘Are you ready for this? me, would have to start so soon, simply because of what I saw every day and how important this position was to us.

These traits have also caught the attention of Big Ten rivals.

“He’s a confident kid,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “He’s a strong, solid point guard. He plays hard. He scrapes. He gets his hands on a lot of balls.

Hepburn scored a career-high 17 points on Tuesday against Purdue and capped the performance by conceding a 3-point tiebreaker past the Wisconsin bench with 1.5 seconds left.

That winning basket sounded pretty familiar to Doug Woodard, who coached him at Bellevue, Nebraska, West High School. Woodard recalled how Hepburn also went for a 3-pointer to beat Creighton Prep during a high school career that included three appearances in state championship games and a title.

“It was almost the same angle, but from the opposite side,” Woodard said.

Woodard was so struck by the similarity that he pointed it out in a text message to Hepburn. Woodard said Hepburn responded by sending a series of smiley faces.

“I’m not sure Chucky wanted to take it, but to me the fact is he’s ready to take that hit,” Woodard said. “He finds a way in the big moments to get things done.”

That shot catapulted Hepburn into the spotlight, but it was his ability to do the dirty work that earned him the respect of his teammates and coaches.

His numbers aren’t particularly eye-catching. He is averaging 8.1 points, 2.2 assists and 2 rebounds.

“I feel like I played okay, not the best I could,” Hepburn said.

But he avoids turnovers — he has totaled just four in playing 174 minutes during Wisconsin’s five-game winning streak — and plays tenacious defense.

“From the first day of practice or the first gym open, he kept me the whole time and was in shorts,” junior forward Tyler Wahl said. “I was like, ‘This kid wants it. He’s going to be good.”

Now his offense is catching up with his defense. This became evident against Purdue as he captivated a raucous crowd that couldn’t wait to thank him.

“I walk around campus and people take pictures with me and say, ‘Good shot,'” Hepburn said. “That’s the kind of support I like, which is why I chose Wisconsin. There’s no better fanbase than Wisconsin.

Hepburn wants to keep delighting them for about a month.

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