Chambliss was the best playmaker for the Badgers
MADISON, Wis. -- No team in the country misses an NBA early-entrant more than Wisconsin.
Put point guard Devin Harris on the Badgers and they're being discussed with Illinois and Michigan State as favorites in the Big Ten and possible Final Four teams.
That's why Harris' long, drawn-out decision process last spring was excruciating for Wisconsin. The Badgers' staff and players knew that once Harris made his final decision to stay in the draft that they were heading for a season of unknowns.
They didn't know who was going to be their lead guard. They had no idea if they had one playmaker, let alone three. There were plenty of other questions, like whether Alando Tucker was healthy enough to be a star after playing in only four games last season because of a foot injury. They had no idea if redshirt freshman and former McDonald's All-American center Brian Butch was physically strong and tough enough to be a factor.
And, they weren't sure what to make of junior Boo Wade deciding to take some time away from the sport to take care of personal issues, removing the most experienced point guard from the team earlier this season.
The answers to most of these questions, especially the point, became crystal clear Tuesday night in the Badgers' 69-64 victory over Maryland in the Big Ten's lone win through the first two days of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Finally, the Badgers have a replacement for Harris in Penn State transfer Sharif Chambliss.
Playing at about 85 percent, according to Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, Chambliss was far and away the best playmaker for the Badgers. He was the more experienced, the most confident and without question the most effective of a three-guard committee that hadn't worked so far.
Chambliss scored 15 points, dished out three assists, made 5-of-12 shots, 3-of-6 from three, 2-of-4 free throws and came up with three steals, including the game-sealing pick of Nik Caner-Medley in the final four seconds. The steal bounced over to Zach Morley, who was fouled, and then buried two free throws to ice the game.
The best stat of all was Chambliss' 26 minutes, the most he has played this season.
"This is why I came here," said a beaming Chambliss, who is from nearby Racine.
Chambliss' play Tuesday night is somewhat remarkable, considering that he tore his ACL, and according to him, also his calf and hamstring two days before the Badgers left for the NCAA Tournament last March.
"I'm back faster than I thought," Chambliss said. "Coach had given me spot minutes and they know that my leg isn't 100 percent yet. Time will heal it. I tore it in March, had surgery in April, rehabbed all summer and started playing again the first day of practice."
Chambliss played 13 minutes in the opening win against Penn, 11 in a win over UC Santa Barbara and eight in a 15-point loss at Pepperdine last Saturday that exposed the Badgers' lack of quickness and toughness.
Chambliss said this was the first time he could tell the players were listening to him and were with him as he tried to direct the team. He said he relished the crowd support, which was the usual Badger faithful in full force.
The other two point guards -- starting sophomore Kammron Taylor and freshman Michael Flowers -- seemed to be out of their element. Taylor, who was in early foul trouble, had four fouls overall, didn't score and had two turnovers without an assist in 12 minutes. Flowers, who lost one of his contact lenses at one point during the game, never seemed to be in focus, playing six minutes and committing one turnover without scoring or dishing out an assist.
Maryland coach Gary Williams said the intention was to exploit the point guard position. But it didn't happen in part because Chambliss was aggressively looking for his shot, and the Terps' John Gilchrist had one of his worst shooting nights (2-for-14 overall, 1-for-7 on 3s).
Ryan was quick to credit all three point guards for their defense on Gilchrist, but he did single out Chambliss.
"He stepped up and was more authoritative," Ryan said. "He got the guys where they needed to be on the court. All I said to him the past couple of weeks was that he wasn't ready yet. He wasn't cutting as hard as he needed to and his decision-making wasn't there. He's a gamer and that's why we're glad he persevered to come here."
Chambliss isn't a novice. He made the unique decision to come home, pay his own way, and get back to a real Big Ten environment after leading Penn State in scoring as a sophomore and junior.
"He brought leadership for us," senior Mike Wilkinson said. "He knew when to take his shots."
Tucker said Chambliss wasn't scared to make plays. He also was full of energy and played off the crowd, as well as equaling Gilchrist's exuberance. Chambliss' efforts helped get the offense going, which in turn was a benefit for Tucker. Tucker -- the most athletic player on the team -- played up to his potential with a career-high 27 points. He was the star the Badgers needed, creating his own shot by getting along the baseline to the basket. Chambliss did some quick thinking of his own offensively and if the two of them can be one-on-one players when the offense breaks down, then this team has a shot to finish in the top three in the Big Ten.
Butch played his most complete game to date with four boards, four points, two blocks and oodles of energy. Wilkinson was his usual solid self with eight boards. And the crafty Morley found a way to score a dozen.
The Badgers go to Rutgers next and still have to play at Marquette as well as getting UW-Milwaukee and Alabama at home before the Big Ten. If they had lost to Maryland then finding a point guard wouldn't have felt as significant. Getting both made the evening the best night of their season, so far.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.