A new NCAA rule for men's basketball this year permits each team to practice 30 times before the first game of the year, allowing Wisconsin to hold its first official practice of the 2013-14 season last Friday.
So it's officially hoops season, which seems like something worth talking about during an off week on the gridiron. Today's topic is identity.
Throughout most of Bo Ryan's 13-year tenure in Madison, the Badgers have been known for stingy defense and ball control, followed in varying degrees by other characteristics like offensive efficiency, playing at a low tempo and defensive rebounding. As the temperature outside starts to dip, I wonder if the winds of change which many suspect are swirling for Badger basketball will lead to anything tangible.
For the second consecutive year, the Badgers have at least one significant hole for which there is no clear solution. Rather than trying to replace their All-American point guard, this time the Badgers need to plug three spots up front vacated by experienced seniors.
There are fans -- a sizable number -- that believe this season's roster signals a subtle change in how Ryan will lead his troops.
Despite the personnel losses, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz were among the least efficient offensive players on the team. Meanwhile, Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky and Ben Brust were easily the three most efficient offensive players last season. All three are back.
Dekker, who led the team with 19.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game during the summer's fast-paced Canadian tour, is an upgrade over Bruesewitz at small forward. Even if he's yet to master all of Ryan's defensive concepts, Dekker is a bona fide state treasure despite starting only three games so far in his career.
What else is left in the cupboard, you ask? Kaminsky looks better and ready to match -- or even exceed -- Jared Berggren's talents on offense. The junior pivot scored 15.6 ppg in the five Canadian exhibitions. However, it's on defense where Kaminsky will ultimately be measured a success or failure as a first-year starter. He's not the shot-blocker Berggren was and he will be needed more on the glass than anything else.
With two offensive upgrades entrenched in the frontcourt, that leaves a glaring weakness at the power forward spot previously manned by Evans. The six-man freshman class includes two big, interesting prospects in Nigel Hayes and Vitto Brown. While each is arguably ahead of the normal learning curve thanks to a busy summer with the team, it would be foolish to expect major contributions from them right out of the gate.
Duje Dukan looked promising offensively this summer (there's that theme again...) and utility forward Zach Bohannon is back, but all signs point toward Ryan using a smaller, faster lineup. Does that equate to uptempo basketball? Maybe -- if UW can rebound the ball.
The crowded backcourt returns four players with starting experience: Brust, Traevon Jackson, George Marshall and the reintroduction of Josh Gasser. Brust and Jackson are entrenched as returning starters, each one (11.4 points per game) among the five Badgers who averaged at least 8.8 PPG in Canada. Gasser is the possible fifth starter if he is near 100 percent healthy by the season opener.
Brust has quietly come a long way in four years. Among Big Ten returnees, he played the fifth-highest percentage of his team's minutes (84.5 percent) last season. If you've paid attention, you know why. Brust takes incredibly good care of the ball and has improved his defense while avoiding fouls. Oh, and he is a legitimate weapon from anywhere behind the three-point arc. (Hi, Michigan!)
Jackson and Gasser both have more defensive-oriented reputations, but even so, the team's identity in 2013-14 will certainly be more offensive than defensive.
The question that we all await the answer to is, what kind of offensive team will they be? Faster, slower or the same? Inside, outside or balanced? Assuming that with the departure of the seniors most of UW's shots will continue to come from the outside, the real buzz is about pace.
If the Badgers can keep opponents away from offensive rebounds, another way Wisconsin might increase its pace would be more turnovers. If you ignore for a moment all the ill-advised shots by Evans that could be considered turnovers, he was actually a very high-usage player who valued the ball. Same goes for Berggren. On the other hand, UW's incumbent point guard turned the ball over on 25 percent of the possessions he used! Jackson has to be wiser with the ball as a junior, or else Wisconsin's pace will rise in a bad way.
During its last 30-win season in 2008, Wisconsin turned over the ball on nearly 20 percent of its possessions, if you can believe it. But Trevon Hughes and Michael Flowers were also generating steals at an above-average rate. That was also the last Badger team to top 62 possessions per game. The problem is I don't see many turnover-creators on defense for this year's team. Ryan is not likely to tolerate that kind of ratio.
The saving grace for the uptempo crowd is twofold. First, the Alando Tucker-led Badgers of that era were the fastest-paced group under Ryan. Dekker -- though quite a different player than Tucker -- is that same kind of unique talent on the wing. He'll have a long leash this season. With Jackson, Brust and other young legs beside him (Bronson Koenig, for example) who have been echoing this notion of Ryan wanting to play faster, we know how Dekker would prefer to play.
Secondly, last year's team, featuring the second-best defense in the land, came pretty close to that 62-possession barrier (61.7) even as the rest of college basketball slowed down.
If I had to guess, I'd say Wisconsin's tempo ticks upward this year, but nothing drastic. There will be issues rebounding that draw out possessions and I think the turnovers will stay low. What will continue to evolve is the team's willingness to seize the first good scoring opportunity, led by Dekker, no matter the shot clock situation.
Even if you think the Badgers look like they are playing faster this year, it will barely register in the statistics. But it could be a step in a new direction.
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If you missed the streaming coverage of the summer exhibitions, your first chance to see the team in action will be the annual Red/White Scrimmage, scheduled for 5 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 26. That is conveniently scheduled to help fill the void of the second Badger football bye week.
Here are a few more dates to be aware of:
- Wednesday, Oct. 30: Wisconsin begins play with an exhibition vs. UW-Platteville
- Thursday, Oct. 31: Big Ten Media Day in Chicago
- Friday, Nov. 8: Season opener vs. St. John's in Sioux Falls, S.D.
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