The Wisconsin Badgers will start anew this season when it takes on the Western Illinois Leathernecks at 7 p.m. Friday night. Fans arriving earlier will get to watch Wisconsin's most recent Final Four banner lifted to the ceiling, helping to put to rest the thoughts and memories of UW's amazing 2014-15 season.
Last season was arguably the best one in Wisconsin basketball history, as they finished as the national runner-up, but also won 36 games and defeated the previously undefeated Kentucky Wildcats in a semifinal game that shocked much of the sports world.
As Bo Ryan's incredible coaching career comes to a close in the near future, this season should be filled with excitement and celebration for all that the old school coach brings to the university, its student athletes, and of course, the fans.
If there is one thing I love about this team, is its potentially dangerous perimeter defense. Do-it-all and fan favorite Josh Gasser will be exchanged with another stingy defender and local fan favorite in Zak Showalter. Showalter should bring the same intensity and discipline that Gasser supplied for Ryan's defense, and there is no doubt in my mind that Showy can come up with some game-changing take-charges and forced turnovers. Koenig is also an above average defender, but will likely get the less explosive offensive guard, similar to what the Badgers did with Gasser last season. Ryan also knows how to utilize his big men when guarding the perimeter, and it always seems as if every player donning the Cardinal and White is a solid defender on the outside.
Primary and secondary scorers
The Badgers lose a lot of offense with Kaminsky and Dekker off to the Association, however I foresee Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig to slide into the gaping holes the two first-round picks left in Madison. Hayes will take over as the Badgers' go-to scorer and defender as he slides to the three, replacing Dekker. He possesses a deadly jump shot, from inside and outside the arc, and his developing post up game could reach a new level with another offseason under the tutelage of Ryan. Hayes was listed on many preseason All-American lists, including a first-team selection from Sporting News. He was a unanimous selection for the preseason All-Big Ten team.
Koenig also made the All-Big Ten list, tying Wisconsin for first in total members with Maryland. The junior point guard was recently No. 1 on Bleacher Report Lead Writer C.J. Moore's list of potential breakout players for the 2015-2016 college basketball season, and I couldn't agree with him more. Koenig may have the deadliest pull up shot off the dribble of any player in the nation and his competitive drive as a player on and off the court will be of great value this season.
To be completely honest, I am very nervous about the bench this season. As a diehard Badgers fan, I am usually comfortable with UW's roster, but the lack of experience in the second group scares me a bit. Most of them are freshman and the rest have not received a ton of minutes in their collegiate careers. Riley Dearring presents an interesting option, and his jump shot has reportedly improved significantly over the offseason. True freshman Brevin Pritzl was a prized in-state recruit and has a stellar outside shot, but just recently returned form a broken foot.
Replacing Frank Kaminsky at center will be the toughest task of any team in the nation. Simply put, the Badgers are not going to beat you by out-rebounding you, nor will they overwhelm you with physicality. They will play scrappy, tough defense, and rely on their offense and perimeter defense to win them ball games early on. They do not have a seven-footer like Kaminsky to establish a tree in the middle. Wisconsin will rely on Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown, who is listed at 6-8 and 237 pounds, while the tallest player on the roster is 6-11 true freshman Andy Van Vliet, who is not even eligible right now. That leaves fellow true freshman Alex Illikainen, 6-9, which is not super impressive given the sheer competitiveness of Big Ten frontcourts.
As for game No. 1, the Badgers should be able to handle the Leathernecks easily. I expect Bo Ryan to use this game as a way to get his defense up to speed and working together. We saw that the offense looked good after the drubbing the Badgers handed UW-River Falls. But, then again, what Division I school wouldn't handily outplay River Falls.
I also foresee these early games as a chance to test out the back end of his rotation. Hayes, Koenig, and Ethan Happ are basically locked in at the top. I see Showalter taking full control of the shooting guard spot, even if Pritzl comes in to knock down some shots here and there. Vitto Brown has an improving jumper and is a physical rebounder, but I hope to see some big men off the bench like Illikainen or Charlie Thomas get pretty involved.
The Leathernecks are led by senior guard Garret Covington, who put up a more than respectable 15.5 points per game to lead the team last year. He also shot 35.6 percent from behind the arc (good for third on the team) and made the most three-pointers (59).
Western Illinois also returns their second-leading scorer, guard J.C. Fuller, and deadliest outside sniper in Jamie Batish, who made 41.2 percent of his three-pointers a season ago.
When it is all said and done, the Badgers will come out with an easy W on Friday night. I am still going to watch it, because Badgers basketball and college hoops are OFFICIALLY BACK!