Wisconsin Basketball: Aleem Ford Stepping Up Down the Stretch

MADISON, WISCONSIN - FEBRUARY 18: Aleem Ford #2 of the Wisconsin Badgers dribbles the ball while being guarded by Aaron Wheeler #1 of the Purdue Boilermakers in the first half at the Kohl Center on February 18, 2020 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
MADISON, WISCONSIN - FEBRUARY 18: Aleem Ford #2 of the Wisconsin Badgers dribbles the ball while being guarded by Aaron Wheeler #1 of the Purdue Boilermakers in the first half at the Kohl Center on February 18, 2020 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /

It has taken a full team effort to get the Wisconsin basketball team where they are this year, especially after they lost a key player in the middle of conference play. But one junior forward, in particular, has elevated his game as of late.

In the past, we’ve discussed Badger post players who would have to take steps forward with the graduation of star center Ethan Happ. Nate Reuvers made that leap early and has consistently been one of Wisconsin Basketball’s best players. Additionally, Micah Potter was expected to provide a big boost once he was eligible to play and he has done just that.

Another player hoping to take the next step this season was junior forward Aleem Ford. After showing flashes that he might be able to do so early in the year, his production dipped midseason. But just as the team was going through some turmoil, Ford kicked his game back into high gear just in time to help right the ship.

Big offseason expectations

Ford put in a lot of work over the summer to help him take the next step forward this season. According to Jim Polzin in a story posted to the Wisconsin State Journal in November:

"”The process of unleashing Aleem Ford 2.0 began during the offseason with changing his body in the weight room. Ford is at 220 pounds entering the season, which isn’t a big jump from the 216 he played at last season, but he’s noticeably stronger and says he feels more athletic and explosive.”"

Early returns were encouraging. In the team’s Red-White scrimmage, Ford had shown an aggressiveness that resulted in 11 free throw attempts and a team-high 11 points. He would start the season by scoring double figures in six of nine games, averaging 10.4 points per game over that span.

Sure enough, Ford was getting to the line more to start the season. 2.3 times per game over those nine games to be exact, compared to just 0.1 free throw attempts per game the season prior. His newfound aggressiveness led to a spike in rebounding as well. During that stretch, he pulled in 5.0 rebounds per game, 2.3 per game being of the offensive variety, up from 1.9 total rebounds per game his sophomore year. Early on, it appeared the offseason work was paying off.

A bump in the road

Then, for some reason, Ford’s production started to dip. Over the next 12 games, he would average just 5.5 points per game. That stretch featured just one double-digit scoring effort. His free throw attempts dropped to an average of just 0.8 per game and he went a span of eight games at one point with no free throw attempts at all.

Part of the change may have come down to shot selection. In those first nine games, 48.1% of his shots were from outside the arc. That jumped to 54.8% in the following 12 games. On top of that, his shot attempts in general dropped from 8.8 per game to 5.2. So, he was taking fewer shots and settling for threes a bit more often when he did shoot.

With the drop in aggressiveness in shooting there was also a drop off in rebounding as well, falling to 2.3 rebounds per game during his mid-season swoon. As a result, Ford started to see his minutes decrease, from 27 minutes per game in the first nine games down to 19.2 in the next twelve. Soon, though, he would start looking more like the Aleem Ford that fans saw to start the season.

Filling in for King

If there was a time this year that players were needed to step up more than ever, it was when Kobe King announced his intent to transfer from the Wisconsin program. King put up double-digit points in six of nine Big Ten games for the Badgers so his sudden absence was about to put quite the void in the team’s offensive production.

That may have been just the jolt that Ford needed because he seems to have regained his magic in the five games since King left (King technically missed the Iowa game six games ago as well, but had not formally announced his intent to transfer yet).

Ford has put up double figures in points in four of the last five games, averaging 11.2 points per game in that time. He led all scorers from both teams in the most recent game against Purdue, setting a new career-high with 19 points. And in the one game where he didn’t score in double digits, he set a different career-high by pulling down 10 rebounds for the first time ever.

Oddly enough, Ford has actually been shooting more threes lately. He’s shooting 61.5% of his shots from deep over the last five games. But it sure does help that he’s now making them at a 50% success rate over his most recent stretch, up from 35.4% for the season.

Most importantly, it seems as though Ford has asserted himself again. He is back up to an average of 7.8 shot attempts per game over this current stretch, much closer to that early-season average. And though he’s only getting to the free throw line 1.2 times per game during that span, possibly a result of smarter shot selection, he has been far more aggressive on the boards, pulling down 6.8 per game over the last five.

Next. Badgers Closing in on NCAA Tournament Bid. dark

As the Badgers look to finish strong and hopefully close out the season with an NCAA Tournament berth, it will take the type of well-balanced effort that the team has put forth in recent weeks. Ford joining his fellow Badgers who have taken a step forward this year will be part of the recipe that makes that a reality.