MADISON, Wis. – A triumphant early return was thought to be the jumping off point for Aleem Ford.
Coming back weeks early from knee surgery, Ford knocked the rust off in a three-game set in the Bahamas to set the stage for a four 3-pointer performance in a 79-75 victory over N.C. State. It only seemed natural that Ford would bring a constant scoring pop off the bench the healthier he got.
Eight games later, the plan hasn’t unfolded as one would hope.
Entering Friday’s home game against Purdue, Ford has gone scoreless in four of his last five games, hasn’t broken the 10-point barrier since that victory over the Wolfpack and can’t get back into his pre-injury rhythm.
“Aleem has not been the same since the injury,” head coach Greg Gard said. “I haven’t seen the same player, even in practice. That’s something he’s just got to continue to work to get back into a rhythm, get some flow going a little bit with him, knock down some shots.”
In the four games following his debut in the Bahamas, Ford averaged 17.5 minutes per game, scored a total of 27 points and shot 45.5 percent from the field. In the last five games, Ford has played just 15.2 minutes, scored nine points and shot just 20 percent.
And despite adding 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason, the 6-8 Ford is averaging just 2.0 rebounds per game. In Wisconsin’s 71-52 victory at Penn State Sunday, Ford attempted only one shot, didn’t grab a rebound, committed one foul and a turnover in seven minutes, his fewest since Nov.23.
“Anytime you have any type of lower-body injury, it’s always how much lift do you have? How much can you push off your legs? I see him struggling with those things as far as having the lift to go rebound, the legs to shoot,” assistant coach Howard Moore said. “I’m not trying to make excuses for him, but there’s a little bit of hesitation.”
The reluctance has zapped Ford of one of his best assets. Appearing in all 33 games a year ago, which included 20 starts, Ford hit 45 3-pointers, the fifth-best in UW freshman history, and his 40.9 percentage from distance was the third-highest ever by a UW freshman.
Ford is currently shooting 30.3 percent from the perimeter, missing his last six attempts over three games. Of the 39 shots the redshirt sophomore has attempted, 33 have been 3-pointers (84.6 percent). He also has yet to attempt a free throw in 160 minutes on the floor, a huge sticking point for the staff.
“We’ve tried to convince him that he’s got to be more than a 3-point shooter,” Gard said. “Find a way to get into the paint, get on the offensive glass, find other ways to invigorate your offensive ability other than just constantly hunting for threes.”
One player the staff has pointed to as an example is senior Khalil Iverson. A player who in his own right is going through some struggles offensively, Iverson didn’t attempt a shot or a free throw at Penn State but contributed with six rebounds (two offensive), three assists, two steals and no turnovers to spark the offense.
Preaching aggressiveness, the UW staff hopes the old Aleem Ford will reappear heading into a challenging stretch of conference games.
“We’re not asking him to go out and score 20 points a game,” Moore said. “We’re just asking him to play within himself. If the shots are there, take them. If not, reverse it, feed the post and move, but we really want him to be aggressive defensively (and) rebounding. Playing the four spot, you got to make sure you are rebounding, getting in there and sticking your nose into the fray, not shying away from those contact situations.”