After just one preseason basketball game, we know that Wisconsin's frontcourt looks impressive with Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil, Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren. We also know that some how, some way, freshman guard Josh Gasser is going to play a lot this season. We can say with some certainty that the Badgers will go about 10 players deep during the non-conference schedule.
One thing we don't know is who will start the year opposite Jordan Taylor in the backcourt. There is plenty of evidence out there to suggest that Bo Ryan isn't sure yet either. Wisconsin's head coach has repeatedly alluded to defensive awareness being the deciding factor in who will gobble up the available minutes in the early going. Ryan has mentioned this so often that it makes you wonder if he hasn't seen the improvement he expected from his returning players.
Which brings us to Wednesday night's exhibition against Minnesota State-Mankato. Several players have a chance to step forward and make the staff's decision easier, whether it be Gasser, Rob Wilson, Ryan Evans, or Wquinton Smith.
Ryan said Monday that Wilson is still bothered by a tweaked hamstring and could possibly miss the preseason finale. The injury, suffered during the first half of Saturday's warm-up against UW-LaCrosse, could rob (pun intended of course) Wilson of valuable practice time and game situations in which to prove his worth.
Understanding the Badgers' need for a secondary ballhandler, all eyes are on Gasser. Ryan said he sees a little bit of Michael Flowers in Gasser, citing his "chippiness" during competition.
"[Gasser] can handle the ball. He can see the floor. He'll move his feet. He pays attention to everything that's said ... The offensive things, the instincts, are there. Defensively, I want to see how far he can take it. But every phase of the game, he's a gamer."
Ryan continued to say that Gasser possesses offensive versatility and has been learning more every day. This is the first time I've written about the praise Ryan has heaped on Gasser this fall, but it has been one of the major themes of the preseason. In the team's first exhibition, Gasser looked the part entirely. The continuation of the learning curve works in Gasser's favor with Wilson struggling with an injury.
"Those guys that keep showing progress are guys that'll get more minutes," Ryan said. "And it's never mattered to me whether or not they are scholarship players or non-scholarship players. They're all players. So whoever earns it, will receive it."
It is always a lost cause trying to get inside Ryan's head based on his comments alone, but there is no mistaking that history supports the lip service he has given to defense over the past month. I didn't include senior Tim Jarmusz in the earlier list because he is the one player out of those vying for a starting position who has consistently proven his effort and knowledge on the defensive side of the ball. Based on Ryan's comments, I think it's pretty safe to say you can pencil Jarmusz into the opening day lineup.
Along with Jarmusz, Evans got his starting audition against UW-LaCrosse. Though he struggled from the field, Evans added four rebounds and three assists in 16 minutes. Though Evans fills more of a slashing/rebounding forward role on the team last year, you cannot rule him out of catapulting into the starting lineup.
Backcourt candidates' stat lines vs. UW-LaCrosse
So keep your eyes on the perimeter defense on Wednesday night, as the competition will take a step up from a Div. III opponent to a very successful Div. II program. Ryan will continue to experiment liberally with different lineup combinations. This is the final showcase before Sunday's season opener for players to showcase their defensive ability -- a must for any Badger hoping to see the floor, as Ryan explained:
"It's probably going to rest in the hands of -- or in the feet of -- the best defenders to get some early time at the guard spot because we're going to play some really good teams that have some guys that can beat you off the bounce, some real good shooters. So we're going to have to find something defensively and then work from there."
Hopefully Bo finds what he is looking for tonight, with tip-off against the Mavericks set for 7 p.m.