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December 24, 2012

Bohannon makes his own path

Zach Bohannon stepped up to the free throw line on the court at the Kohl Center and caught the ball as it was passed to him from underneath the basket. A lanky 6-foot-6 forward, Bohannon's face furrowed with concentration as he dropped his knees a bit while sizing up his shot, then straightened up and sank the free throw. His teammates roared as the ball dropped through the net and bounced on the hardwood.

It wasn't a game winning shot- Bohannon had merely saved his teammates from running extra sprints after practice. But even though he's just played off the bench for the Badgers so far this season, Bohannon has been making his mark on the court and with a word processor since he transferred to Wisconsin from Air Force nearly two years ago.

Even still, it had been a long time since Bohannon was in a high-pressure situation on the court- maybe even dating back to Feb. 20, 2010, when he was still flung far away from home and playing for the Air Force Falcons.

"I had a game against New Mexico when I was at Air Force my freshman year," Bohannon recalled after practice, unafraid to mince words. "We were terrible- we hadn't won a conference game all season."

New Mexico was ranked No. 15 in the country at the time, but the Lobos were locked in a tight battle with the Falcons when New Mexico's Darington Hobson was called for a technical foul. Down just five points, Air Force head coach Jeff Reynolds needed to send someone to the free throw line to try and score two free points. Reynolds eventually settled on Bohannon.

"He's like 'Can you shoot them?' And I'm like 'Hell yeah I'll shoot them!'" Bohannon said, but he quickly started laughing and shaking his head. "[I] Bricked them both."

The Falcons ended up losing to the Lobos 59-56, and Bohannon said Reynolds blamed him for the loss after the game. Those two missed free throws didn't make Bohannon transfer away from the academy- at the time there weren't many reasons for Bohannon to think about coming back home to the Midwest. He was getting playing time as a true freshman, he had three years of eligibility left to grow as a basketball player, and perhaps most importantly, he was out from under his older brother Jason's shadow. The Badgers initially recruited the younger Bohannon out of high school, but he said he didn't think he could play second fiddle to Jason again.

"The funny thing is I didn't go here initially because I didn't want to be in my brother's shadow again," Bohannon said. "Jason was a 1,000-point scorer, he played four years here, graduated with a business degree, and he was one of the best student athletes you could possibly have. I was like, 'I don't think I could even come close to that.'"

So he packed up and enrolled at Air Force as a scholarship player, determined to forge his own identity in the Mountain West Conference, nearly 900 miles from his home in Marion, Iowa. Bohannon said he planned on staying at Air Force for all four years of his career and completing the eight years of service that the academy requires of all students, but a thumb surgery during his sophomore season gave him a chance to think and made him wonder if he was really happy in Colorado Springs. After talking it over with his family, Bohannon decided he needed to return closer to home.

"Part of it probably was because I didn't feel a part of the team because of the injury," Bohannon said. "But I took a step back and I thought 'Am I really happy here?' That was one of those things that it ultimately came down to, and if you're not happy doing something day in and day out … it's like what is it even worth anymore?"

"The hardest part was hearing [my family] say 'You know, we just want you back in the Midwest, Zach. We don't care where you go; it doesn't matter- even if you don't want to play basketball anymore. We just want to be around you.'"

Bohannon asked for and received his release from Air Force, and said he had no idea where he would eventually end up. Bohannon used his contacts at Wisconsin and called assistant coach Gary Close to see if some smaller schools were interested in bringing Bohannon into their program, but Close called back two days later and said head coach Bo Ryan was interested in bringing Bohannon to Madison.

"We wanted to give him options. Having recruited his brother and having watched his development [we] thought he could possibly help us," Close said. "[We said] 'this is what we can provide, you can decide what's best for you.'"

Bohannon said he was a little skeptical about following in Jason's footsteps again, but Ryan hit all the right notes when the two started talking.

"They say he's a great recruiter when you get on the phone or when you meet him in person. When he got me on the phone I was almost ready to commit on the spot," Bohannon said with a laugh. "I didn't even talk to my parents. I told them 'I don't want to go to Wisconsin, that's the last place I'd want to go.' And once I talked to coach Ryan I heard exactly what I wanted to hear, and he made it sound like being a walk on was the best thing in the entire world."

And after thinking about it, Bohannon said he decided that he couldn't keep running away from his older brother. Jason helped lead the Badgers to a Big Ten Championship, but that wasn't a reason to stay away from the program that made him feel the most at home.

"After thinking about it, I was like 'I went four years in high school under his shadow,' and that's what made me who I was," Bohannon said. "Why run away from it? There's going to be a lot of familiar faces, I knew it would be an easier transition coming here than going to a new program."

After that, Bohannon's transfer to Wisconsin was all but decided. Bohannon agreed to walk on for the Badgers, but was awarded a scholarship before this season after he spent his NCAA-mandated year on the bench. Ryan said that Bohannon getting a scholarship wasn't about charity- the junior worked hard during his redshirt year to keep the team sharp, even if he wasn't playing.

"Other schools had scholarships for him," Ryan said. "We didn't have a scholarship, but he came to our camp every year, just like J-Bo did. Obviously the family had a good experience here that way. And then he decided 'Hey I'll come here anyway. I'll walk on.' A scholarship opened up, and he got it.

"It's not like it was a Santa Claus bag and I pulled one out for him. He turned down some other scholarships, and he's hoping to contribute- he already has in practice."

This is part one of a two-part feature. Check back tomorrow for the second part of the story!

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.

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