If the Badgers fail to handle these three key issues, you might actually worry about Bo Ryan's NCAA tournament bid streak. If worrying is your thing, that is.
You might be thinking to yourself, hey, haven't the injuries to Josh Gasser and Mike Bruesewitz knocked the basketball team off track enough already? Not necessarily. Besides the obvious issues Wisconsin has to deal with, there are other more subtle areas in which the Badgers need to work to earn a passing grade. If they succeed, Wisconsin will be formidable yet again. But success is not a given.
Last year's starting backcourt is gone
Saying Wisconsin must find a new point guard seemed too obvious to include on its own, so let's acknowledge the broader crisis. Because Josh Gasser’s ACL injury will keep him out for the entire season, Wisconsin now needs to replace him and Jordan Taylor using a group of players that have zero combined starts. That’s zero, as in only 905 combined minutes in 68 career appearances. Which averages out to around 4.4 min/g of experience between Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson and George Marshall.
To be fair, Brust ranked sixth on last year’s squad in minutes, appearing in all 36 games and averaging 21.3 minutes as a key contributor off the bench. His limitations as a point guard, however, have been discussed ad nauseam.
So rather than allow Marshall to get his feet wet in game action and let Jackson wade a little deeper into the pool, both are being pushed into the deep end when it comes to manning the point guard position. Though we have little information to go on, at least Marshall successfully ran the point for the Badgers during Sunday's "secret scrimmage" against DePaul.
Each of the three guys can contribute in their own ways. Brust brings unlimited 3-point range and big game experience. Marshall brings quickness and a nice pull-up jumper. Jackson is strong and already put the defensive clamps on some of the Big Ten's bright young stars (LaQuinton Ross, Gary Harris) at the prep level.
Compared to what Taylor and Gasser brought to the table, the leadership and decision-making will probably drop off significantly. The speed at which the trio replacing them can get to adequate levels in those areas will determine the season’s success. Add a steep learning curve to unproven defensive capabilities and you have cause for concern.
A shift in expectations up front
Like Taylor found out last season, open shots don't come around as often when you are the marked man. Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren have to hope each other's presence will help them avoid the same fate. Neither has been a super efficient player throughout their careers so far, and now the pressure is really on.
As seniors, there is no Taylor (or Gasser) to set them up with open looks. Especially in the early going as fellow senior Bruesewitz rounds back into form, Evans and Berggren will have to work harder to create offense for themselves.
With that said, the more overlooked question is how do Evans and Berggren hold up on defense when so much more is expected of them offensively? It may seem like a foregone conclusion that this pair of fifth-year players won't skip a beat. But keep in mind that there is likely to be more dribble penetration on the inexperienced Wisconsin backcourt. The big men will be covering for the mistakes of others and may not be in great position to cut off lanes, get steals or block shots as they've learned to do.
Scrambling on help defense ultimately leads to fouls. Foul trouble leads to time on the bench. Offensive weapons on the bench means it's harder to score, and ultimately, harder to win. This is a snowball effect Wisconsin desperately wants to avoid.
A doomsday scenario like this underscores why Bruesewitz is so important to the team. He's another release valve for pressure. He knows how to play defense and has been through the fire already. Frank Kaminsky's development is a huge plus for UW as well.
Sam Dekker is not a savior
All along, the two biggest wild cards on Wisconsin's roster were two newcomers: Marshall and freshman forward Sam Dekker. When word came out that Gasser had beaten out Marshall for the starting point guard spot, we had to reevaluate what we thought we knew about the youngster. But with Dekker, it was almost assumed that he'd take over Bruesewitz, never give the starting gig back, and be walking on water by year two -- if not sooner.
Well, it's time to take a step back. With a lot of unexpected personnel uncertainty, Dekker might be viewed by some as a balm for what's ailing the roster right now. I honestly don't blame people for thinking Dekker might be the guy who winds up with the ball in his hands a few times with the shot clock winding down. Next to Brust, he might be the only dude with the stones to want that role.
But the level of competition that Dekker will face when he hits a major college opponent's home floor for the first time in Gainesville on Nov. 14 is several steps up from even the best AAU competition he's conquered in the past. Inevitably, Dekker is going to get pushed around by someone bigger and stronger. He's going to look confused and turn the ball over on a few occasions. Those turnovers might even come at the worst time you can possibly imagine.
Now, we all know Dekker is going to play a significant amount this season. Teammates marvel at his versatility. Everyone who watches him -- Ryan included -- praises his skill, basketball IQ and desire to improve. Just remember the coach heaped praise on Jarrod Uthoff last year too, and we all know how that turned out. My point is that there will be growing pains.
When things settle down and the Badgers settle into a groove, Dekker is going to be a big part of what works well for Wisconsin. He just won't do it alone and it won't be perfect. Not yet.
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