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Wisconsin basketball faces plenty of 'ifs,' promise

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By now, it's a familiar theme: Wisconsin is expected to entertain, despite a perceived drop-off from last year.

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Guess Wisconsin's bye week comes at an opportune time this season -- that it's finally here is enough of a good thing. When the Badgers resume action next week at Camp Randall Stadium against Northwestern, will players like Austin Traylor, Eric Steffes, Chris Orr or Taiwan Deal be back and ready to play? Who knows -- and now there's this Corey Clement cut-hand situation. Probably best to just wait until next week before analyzing or speculating.

But guess what else starts Friday? That's right, basketball will be officially back starting with Western Illinois visiting the Kohl Center. With so many new faces, the anticipation will be quite a bit different from last year. If you want to get ready, check out our own Phil Mitten, who can write and do graphic art, Curt Hogg, who can write and play, and SB Nation's Thomas Beindit at BT Powerhouse, who has a great season preview and a Badger-centric podcast embedded there with our man Drew Hamm.

Last year, most of the sentiment was, "Let's just get to March already!" Getting all the way to the national title game through the second of two Final Fours in a row is a program zenith -- it's hard to expect anything like that this year. The facts are well-known: the Badgers lost about three-quarters of their scoring and minutes from last season and Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are the only players resembling known quantities returning, so this team will go as far those two can take it.

Hayes and Koenig appear on multiple top player lists, both in the conference and nationally. They "resemble" known quantities because no one can say with any certainty how they'll play with the significantly expanded roles each will have this season, along with the just-as-significantly-intensified focus each will get this season from opponents. They're just about locks to impress more often than not, but there's no doubt there will be a lot more eyes on them this time around.

Off-guard Zak Showalter will have to prove his game-changing cameos against North Carolina and Arizona weren't flukes or anomalies. The absence of a pure shooter at this position, or on the wing, will be a concern to watch. It's just not known whether Riley Dearring can step in and fill this role, or whether true freshman Brevin Pritzl, whom it seems would be an early contributor in this role, will be ready (and able) until conference play. The foot injury Priztl suffered in the late summer may leave him best served by a redshirt this season.

The frontcourt looks, as always, like it will be filled with big guys who can shoot, too, but they'll be young and inexperienced. Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ was a scout-team legend last year, but he'll be the greenest of the likely starters. True freshman Charlie Thomas might eventually eat into the time of the fifth presumed starter Vitto Brown, and questions surround both: Thomas because he's so young, Brown because of what we've seen from the junior to date. Another true freshman, Alex Illikainen, should also be in the mix for playing time.

The most exciting of the freshman newcomers has to be 6'5 wing Khalil Iverson, who reminds many who've seen him of a young Alando Tucker (even more than Hayes at times). High praise, to be sure, and he does look like an alley-oop waiting to happen, but he hasn't played in a real college yet either. Because he was so lightly recruited, it'll be an even bigger story if he explodes on the scene. He should be the biggest "X-factor" on this year's team, if there is one.

Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue are picked by most, if not all, to fill the top four spots in the Big Ten at the end of the year -- most then have a replenished Michigan finishing ahead of the Badgers as well. However, even in years where Bo Ryan's teams have limped through the season or just plain came up short of expectations (2005-06 and 2008-09 come to mind) they've still finished fourth. Until proven otherwise, that's where they'll finish this year, the many unknowns about this team be damned.

Position previews: Posts Wings Ballhandlers

Before the calendar turns to 2016, UW does have some intriguing, and really tough, games. Road games at Syracuse and Oklahoma, Georgetown at Madison Square Garden and the in-state tussle with Marquette (this year in Madison), stand out. When conference play rolls around, it'll be difficult to say this year's team won't be battle-hardened. There shouldn't be too many freshmen by that point either, considering how much it looks like most of them will play.

Is another Final Four possible? That's doubtful, but there's no reason this team shouldn't continue Ryan's unbroken run of NCAA tournament appearances. Once they're there, the Badgers could even make some noise, too, depending as always on their pod and venue. For this season, the biggest draw should be all the new players and the leaps Hayes and Koenig appear to have made over last year. If injuries don't hit the team too hard, and if most of the rotational players make consistent, solid contributions, this team should be as interesting as ever.

It may well be Ryan's last season, too, and if Iverson really is what it looks like he is, the season could even be a special one. Man, that's a lot of "ifs," isn't it?