The next game was about to start, and Gabe Madsen strolled over to a corner of the Mark Sutton Memorial Gymnasium to grab the basketball.
He didn’t see Johnny Davis sneaking up behind him, then expressed disappointment as Davis ran past him, grabbed the ball first and made a layup before returning to the rest of their Wisconsin Playground Club teammates to get started.
Getting to a loose ball between games was even a competition for this group of AAU players — nearly all of them with NCAA Division I futures — assembled Monday night by coach Justin Mallett.
“It’s fun being around these guys because it’s like having a college team,” said Terrance Thompson, who is gearing up for his senior season at Central. “The quality of the players on this team is something.”
So were some of the practice matchups. Central’s Johnny and Jordan Davis — both committed to the University of Wisconsin — guarded each other for a portion of the practice. So did Gabe and Mason Madsen, who play together at Rochester Mayo and have a long list of scholarship offers themselves.
The 6-foot-7 Thompson, who is mulling over eight Division I offers, matched up most of the night with Sheboygan Lutheran’s 6-8 Jacob Ognacevic, who has six.
David Skogman, a 6-10 power forward from Waukesha West (committed to Buffalo) and Alexis Antetokounmpo, a 6-7 forward from Whitefish Bay Dominican (Giannis’ little brother) are also on the Wisconsin Playground Club roster along with Onalaska’s Carson Arenz.
Skogman and Antetokounmpo weren’t at Central on Monday, but the 90-minute session didn’t lack a bit for talent with the others there.
Gabe Madsen, whose biggest offers are from Minnesota and Iowa, was unstoppable, whether he shot from the perimeter or took the ball to the basket. Ognacevic made Thompson defend all over the court and was as consistent with his outside shot as he was in the post.
Turning all of this talent into one cohesive machine is Mallett’s job. It is one he debates when home in Maryville, Mo., as much as he does while making what he said is a 5½-hour drive to meet with his team in La Crosse for practices.
Mallett, who is the director of diversity and inclusion at Northwest Missouri State University, lived in Green Bay when he started coaching this group as 15-year-olds. He travels extensively to continue as part of it.
“My job is to prepare these guys for what they are going to see on the next level,” said Mallett, who attended high school in Kosciusko, Miss., and played at UW-Stevens Point in the early 2000s. “It’s putting the building blocks together for them and working together and reacting to what we see on the (AAU) circuit and making them better.”
Mallett is happy with his job and has no plans to make coaching his primary field of employment. He said that alone has helped build trust with the players on the team. Mallett isn’t trying to turn this opportunity into a bigger one, but rather enjoying the moment with a group of players he has become attached to in recent years.
Monday’s practice was the team’s third of the day. Another awaited them Tuesday morning, and that represented the final tuneup for the last two tournaments of the season.
There were no alley-oops, but the competition was fierce. The general consensus of AAU basketball is that it is a game without defense, but that wasn’t the case Monday night.
Mallett, assisted at this practice by former Chippewa Falls coach Luke Madsen, preached defense, mental toughness and playing as a team. Scrimmage time wasn’t for joking around.
The upcoming tournaments in Chicago and Atlanta are big ones and give most of the players on the team — the Davis brothers and Skogman not included — their final chance to make an impression on college coaches.
Johnny Davis said he’s happy to not be in that boat this time around. Being able to relax and just play the game after making his decision to join the Badgers, he said, has changed the game.
“It’s a huge burden that was lifted,” he said. “I had college coaches contacting me every day, and that’s something you have to do to get (the list) down to one. I got down to my one, and it’s a good feeling.”