Badger basketball has officially arrived. It's a bona fide money machine. And after years of exceeding expectations under Bo Ryan, the national perception of Wisconsin hoops is of a perennial power that should not be underestimated.
In fact, so many have vowed to never get fooled again by UW that this year's squad is more at risk of being overrated. Despite the sizable losses of Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil and Tim Jarmusz, Wisconsin enters the preseason ranked by some popular outlets like this: 8th, 12th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 24th. Note that a couple of these geniuses are not exactly in tune with the Badgers -- NBC's usually great Mike Miller refers to "Tim Bruesewitz" and Dicky V thinks Jordan Taylor had off-season knee surgery. Wisconsin excellence has simply seeped into the collective consciousness.
Last year the Badgers were a successful perimeter-oriented team, firing 41.2% of their shots from behind the 3-point line en route to the Sweet 16. The irony of graduating three starting frontcourt players is that Wisconsin will be more balanced this season.
With star power at the top and plenty of depth, guards will be the strength of the 2011-12 club.
The unquestioned starters
#11 | Jordan Taylor, 6'1" Senior
Ah, where to begin ... hasn't it been nice having this guy rep Wisconsin for that last three years? Though few saw stardom in him during his freshman campaign, Taylor has blossomed into Bo Ryan's best point guard ever.
Taylor is generally regarded as the third-best player in the country heading into this season after a remarkable junior year that saw the cover boy earn second-team AP All-American honors after posting 18.1 points, 4.7 assists, and 4.1 rebounds versus only 1.2 turnovers per game. He will be hard-pressed to match last year's unprecedented offensive efficiency, though Taylor may average around 20 ppg again out of necessity.
Dramatic jumps in Taylor's marksmanship have been the hallmark of his rise to fame. Continued improvement from last year's .433/.429/.832 percentages means a Player of the Year trophy. More likely would be subtle adjustments in areas that do not show up in a box score. Like consistently working to get a better look when his jumper is not falling rather than a quick trigger early in the shot clock. It will be hard to avoid this trap when he is expected to produce so much of the offense. As the Kansas State game proved, though, Wisconsin has a leader who can "clutch up" for big plays even when he's not hitting shots.
The task Taylor faces this season will be his greatest: to strap a team on his back not for games at a time, but for an entire season. A potential monkey wrench in the equation is how well Taylor's right ankle holds up to the rigors of a Big Ten season after summer surgery. Perhaps no tournament-caliber team in the country will rise and fall along with the fortunes of a single player more closely than the Badgers with Taylor.
#21 | Josh Gasser, 6'3" Sophomore
If you are getting a bit frightened about a world where Jordan Taylor cannot suit up for UW, thinking about Gasser brings you back from the ledge. Hard to believe he's just a sophomore, right?
Remarkably, Gasser played 28 mpg as a true freshman, something only Alando Tucker and Devin Harris can also claim during Ryan's tenure. The sophomore from Port Washington ranks second among returning players in essentially every category, including points, rebounds, assists and steals. Not to mention he owns the school's only triple-double. That is how you help Badger Nation forget all about that one recruit, uh ... what's his name?
Because Gasser came in on day one as such a smart player, you won't see a huge jump in his performance as a sophomore. But he can build the on the improved accuracy he displayed down the stretch last season when he shot 13-of-29 (45%) on 3-pointers from the Northwestern game onward. Seemingly the light really turned on for Gasser at that point. From then on he was rewarded with over 32 mpg of playing time. I do think we will see Gasser eliminate most of those freshman-level, brain fart turnovers though. In addition, Gasser's true shooting percentage is so strong because of how well picks his spots, draws fouls and converts freebies. Let's hope Gasser stays that efficient because he will be expected to be one of the team's rocks this season.
Off the bench
#33 | Rob Wilson, 6'4" Senior
For our purposes, I am considering Wilson a guard even though his skills translate more to a small forward and he may wind up playing the third guard in a three-guard offense. Wilson followed up an enigmatic sophomore season with a downright disappointing junior year in which he started out in an early hole due to a hamstring injury. In the second of two career starts, Wilson played 32 minutes on the road at Michigan State but had several notable blunders and was never the same.
Assuming he can get his confidence back, as early practices indicate, Wilson has one final chance to make his mark at Wisconsin. Whether he can remain out of Bo's doghouse during adversity is the big question though -- Wilson is clearly the biggest X-factor on the team. He will be needed to keep Taylor and Gasser fresh since both of them play huge minutes.
The good news is his shot selection seemed improved last year. I don't think you can dispute that Wilson has the best post instincts of any guard on the roster. After years of the Badgers chucking up threes, Wilson is the one who can bring balance to the Force if you will. He just needs some shots to fall after shooting a dreadful 1-of-17 from long distance last season. Improved ballhandling could give him that confidence he needs to return his Free Throw Rate back to the impressive level (34.4) of two seasons ago. I know most Badger fans have given up on Rob Wilson, but Bo Ryan has not.
#1 | Ben Brust, 6'1" Sophomore
Unabashed NASCAR nut and self-proclaimed Mario Kart legend, @BenBrust might be UW's most active Twitter personality (though he's no @BValentyn15). Brust possesses decent athleticism for a shooter, and even more apparent, he has loads of enthusiasm. His zest for the game should serve him well now that he's fighting for minutes at the third guard spot. Like Jason Bohannon, Brust seems like he could have some Sixth Man of the Year potential in him at some point in his career.
With so little evidence to go on, however, we are still in wait-and-see mode with Brust. Word was Brust was coming on strong late in the year, but he rarely saw the floor. With that said, the F-U trey he buried at the end of the Michigan State blowout last February gets him kudos in my book. Brust will be counted on to replace the outside threat Nankivil provided. Though I've not been the biggest support of "The Precedent" (see: recruitment, contested), he is my candidate for the player who makes the biggest improvement since last season.
#12 | Traevon Jackson, 6'2" Freshman
Son of a Big Ten legend. Winner. Built like a running back. It's good to have Traevon Jackson in the fold. Jackson played lead guard for his high school squad and will compete at either spot backing up Taylor or Gasser. His strength make him an ideal candidate to fill that bulldog, change-of-pace defender role most recently filled by W'quinton Smith. Watch for comments from Ryan on which reserve among the Wilson/Brust/Jackson trio is playing the best defense during early practices.
#3 | George Marshall, 5'11" Freshman
The first Windy City point at Wisconsin since the Tracy Webster days packs a load of confidence into his small frame (Edit: actually Travon Davis was the most recent PG from Chicago). Getting used to the physicality of big-time college hoops may take some time for Marshall. He has a nice-looking shot and high-level quickness, and any minutes he can spend giving Taylor a breather will be a plus. But basically Marshall should plan on spending the season learning tricks of the trade from his elder. That education is priceless for a guy looking to play point guard under Ryan. Yet it appears Marshall is off to a great start as he reportedly took the first bloody nose of the year in last weekend's opening practice.
#10 | Dan Fahey, 6'3" Junior
Known as a gritty floor leader in high school, Fahey is a legacy Badger following in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather in Madison. He is still looking for his first points in a Badger uniform.
#22 | J.D. Wise, 6'0" Junior
Wise won a roster spot through an open campus tryout and has seen very little game action. The Milwaukee native hopes to contribute more after a broken foot ended his contributions last year. It is unclear how Ryan will handle this walk-on slot when preferred walk-on Zak Showalter hits campus a year from now.
#2 | Jordan Smith, 6'1" Freshman
Smith was really the first drip from the fire hose of preferred walk-ons that Ryan corralled in the offseason. The Orono, Minn., native eschewed a last-minute overture from Rick Majerus before agreeing to walk on at Wisconsin. Viewing Smith as a "Brett Valentyn"-plus is probably selling him short, but you can likely expect a similar career arc.
Our positional season preview will continue next week with Part Two: Forwards & Centers.
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