Two seasons into his career with the Wisconsin men's basketball team, Andy Van Vliet was unhappy and planning an escape.
Four months later, the junior forward is upbeat and optimistic about his future with the Badgers. Van Vliet is eager to continue his pursuit of a starting spot when UW officially begins practice for the 2017-18 season on Friday.
So, what changed? For starters, Van Vliet took a long, hard look in the mirror last spring and didn't like what was staring back at him.
"It was not a fun moment to look at yourself and be like, 'I'm a piece of (expletive),'" Van Vliet said last week before a workout. "Straight up, that's how it was. That changed my whole mentality."
Van Vliet admits that accountability was missing last season, when he was on the bench for all but 48 of a possible 1,500 minutes. He appeared in 14 games overall and only five — for a total of nine minutes — against Big Ten opponents.By the time UW's season ended with an 84-83 overtime loss to Florida in the Sweet 16, Van Vliet was strongly considering a transfer to another program in hopes of finding more playing time.
It wasn't that easy, though. The Belgium native already had sat out his entire freshman season — he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA because he didn't enroll in college within one year of graduating from high school — and most of his sophomore season. Sitting out another season due to NCAA transfer rules didn't sound appealing at all.
Van Vliet, to his credit, didn't make a rash decision. He sought advice from his parents, friends, and teammates, along with strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland and athletic trainer Henry Perez-Guerra. He sat down with Greg Gard for an end-of-the-season interview in which the UW coach was blunt in his assessment of where Van Vliet needed to make changes and said he couldn't make any promises about playing time in the future.
The most important thing Van Vliet did was a self-evaluation of his time at UW. When he asked himself if he was doing everything possible to get on the floor, the answer was no.
"I wasn't into it," he said. "I didn't really buy into the whole system, honestly. At the end of the season, I was really thinking about leaving. I was pretty much set on leaving. And then I really started thinking about, 'OK, is this really what's good for me? Is it really not my fault, or is there something I could do more?'"
50 days pic.twitter.com/zj3w2Pjlq6— Wisconsin Basketball (@BadgerMBB) September 21, 2017
The biggest change for Van Vliet off the court is a stronger commitment to taking care of his body. He tries to get nine hours of sleep every night, which means going to bed at by 10 or 11 even when he doesn't have an early class the following morning. Embracing better nutrition habits has also been a focus for Van Vliet, who is at 228 pounds but would like to add more weight and strength so he's better equipped to handle physical play in the Big Ten.
On the court, Van Vliet has made improving as a defender his top priority. The smooth-shooting left-hander has always been an intriguing prospect because of what he could add on the offensive end of the court. He showed as much at times during UW's five-game exhibition tour to Australia and New Zealand last month, averaging 6.4 points while making four 3-pointers in one game and three in another.
But Van Vliet realizes he's not going to get on the court if he's a defensive liability. He spent the offseason trying to improve his lower-body strength and footwork, putting in extra work with his former teammate on the Antwerp Giants, Stijn Van Herzeele, a summer intern in the UW weight room.
"The coaches have said they see a change and I'm quicker on my feet," Van Vliet said. "I feel it when I sprint out to a guy and close out and really guard him, rather than last year being a stick and barely moving. It feels way more comfortable. I'm still not where I want to be, but it feels so much different."
Gard said he's liked what he's seen from Van Vliet, both during UW's trip and the practices leading up to it.
"Sometimes, your best learning and your best growth comes from when you've hit rock bottom or had some adversity," Gard said. "You've got to fight through it, and I think that was the case for him. It was harder than maybe he had anticipated and he had to learn and grow and develop."
For Van Vliet, the 2017-18 season represents a clean slate. He's bought into the program and is eager to contribute.
"Hopefully this year," Van Vliet said, "I can really help the team and actually live up to my word and do something."
This article is written by Jim Polzin from The Wisconsin State Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.