Johnny Davis had little reaction when it was announced the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team was a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
He sat in his seat in the front row with his arms crossed during the Selection Sunday celebration at Union South. Teammates and fans cheered around him, but Davis already had on his game face.
All business, which is typical for the sophomore guard who has become known for his stoic facial expressions as well as his straightforward and often blunt answers to media questions.
Fans mostly only get to see that version of Davis, but his teammates and coaches know better.
He is the first person to pick on, poke fun at or tease his teammates. It’s not to be mean, but a sign of how close they are and how much he values them.
“He’s usually cool with all the media and stuff,” Jordan Davis, Johnny’s twin brother and teammate, said. “He’s very respectful like you should be, but off the court he’s quite the actor, and he’s quite the guy.”
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Case in point: The Badgers practice pressure free throws to close out practice. Most cheer on their teammate, trying to help him through it, but Davis instead tries to distract the shooter and make him miss, according to assistant coach Dean Oliver.
Davis said his favorite person to pick on from the team is point guard Chucky Hepburn because of the potential he sees in the freshman. He said he’s taken Hepburn under his wing, but sometimes that means getting roasted.
So when Hepburn banked in a 3-pointer to beat Purdue and help the Badgers earn a share of the Big Ten Conference regular-season title March 1 and Davis was asked about the shot after the game, he told a packed Kohl Center the first thing that came to mind — the shot was nonsense, though he used a different phrase.
“That’s classic Johnny for us,” Oliver said. “The way we know that he’s always keeping guys in their place, keeping them grounded.”
It was a great ending for what Davis calls his favorite game of the season. A sea of fans wearing white showed up and were incredibly loud for the Badgers’ second to last game of the regular season. It was the loudest and fullest the Kohl Center had been this season.
“I’m never going to forget that experience in that moment in my life,” Johnny Davis said. “The way we won with that last sequence with me banking in the shot and then (Jaden) Ivey coming down hitting a 3 and Chucky coming down hitting a 3 with a second left. That’s stuff you hope and dream of as a little kid.”
He started to dream a little bigger about his future after returning from the FIBA U19 World Cup, where he earned a spot on the roster alongside college basketball stars such as Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Purdue’s Ivey. Oliver said there was a noticeable shift in how Davis carried himself after winning a gold medal with Team USA following a season spent as a key rotational player for the Badgers.
It was only July. The UW team hadn’t taken shape yet — the Badgers still were bonding and figuring out potential lineups — but Davis knew there was something different upon his return.
“All my teammates were congratulating me,” Davis said. “They were kind of expecting me to be that guy for the team because of everything I had done over the summer. So I feel like that gave me a lot of confidence. It was just kind of a will to not let my teammates down.”
The first sign of just how much Davis would lift his teammates came at the Maui Invitational in late November.
Assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft and coach Greg Gard realized how much better Davis was compared to his freshman season, when he averaged 7.0 points and 4.1 rebounds over 24.4 minutes.
He averaged 23.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 2.3 steals over the 25.6 minutes per game he played in the Maui Invitational. He was named MVP of the tournament, highlighted by a then career-high 30 points against Houston — the first of six ranked opponents UW beat during the regular season.
Davis’ name started surfacing in discussions about national player of the year honors and potential NBA lottery picks soon after the Badgers’ title.
“It was kind of an ugly game, but he was making plays late in the game (against Saint Mary’s),” Krabbenhoft said. “That’s pure heart, will, toughness. I’d say three games in three days, at that level of performance and efficiency is pure toughness. That’s why he’s MVP of the tournament. But those three days were incredible.”
Tyler Wahl remembers sitting outside the interview room soaking in the moment after winning the program’s first Maui Invitational. Wahl, who was waiting to speak at the podium alongside Davis, remembers thinking this team — and Davis — really could go far.
But the seriousness and joy of the moment didn’t stop Davis from poking fun at Wahl for not making any of his four 3-point attempts in the tournament. When Wahl finally did hit a 3-pointer for the first time this season against Ohio State on Jan. 13, Davis was the first person to point out it shouldn’t have taken him that long.
Davis was named Big Ten Player of the Year after averaging 20.0 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 steals.
He’s preparing for one of his childhood dreams of playing in an (another) NCAA Tournament. The Badgers last season played North Carolina and eventual national champion Baylor in Indianapolis. Davis contributed an average of eight points and four rebounds off the bench.
UW got knocked out of the Big Ten tournament early this season, losing to Michigan State in the quarterfinals. Davis was nursing an ankle injury that happened against Nebraska on March 6, and it was unsure if he’d play against the Spartans last Friday. He was held to 11 points on 15.7% shooting — his second-lowest mark this season.
He’s a starter and playing just 80 miles east in Milwaukee for his second NCAA Tournament appearance. The Badgers open March Madness against No. 14 seed Colgate at 8:50 pm Friday.
And he gets to play alongside his brother Jordan, another dream of his. Jordan Davis couldn’t help but pick an embarrassing story to share when asked for one of his favorite stories about his twin brother.
He said it was only fair since Johnny constantly is poking fun at his teammates.
“When we were younger, we slept in the same room together,” Jordan Davis said. “He would snore and it’d be really annoying to me. I’d throw my pillow at him or something and be like ‘Shut up. I’m trying to sleep.’”