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Wisconsin basketball preview: Let's have some fun

Despite facing numerous questions and the likelihood of a drop-off from two straight Final Four runs, these Badgers are bound to be exciting.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

When the preseason Associated Press Top 25 came out Monday, the poll slotted the Wisconsin Badgers at No. 17.

Given the program's losses from its Big Ten champion and national runner-up team last season, it must be that the ranking comes not from doubting a Bo Ryan-led team -- and rightfully so. It is well noted that Ryan has yet to finish outside of the top four in the consistently competitive Big Ten.

Ryan's consistency seems to be one of two obvious certainties surrounding this year's Wisconsin team as the season approaches. The other is the Badgers' two, clear-cut best players being preseason All-Big Ten honorees Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig.

Outside of those elements, it's hard to think of a Ryan-led team with as much uncertainty about it coming into a season. Though the 2005-06 team is the closest comparison, even Ryan himself acknowledges he hasn't coached a Badgers team that lost as much from the previous year as this one.

"There's a certain challenge in what we lost from last season," Ryan said. "Yeah, I mean, we've had some good graduating classes go before, but there's going to be a lot of guys having to develop this year."

So, of course this team won't dominate in the same fashion it did last year. These Badgers aren't among the favorites to make the Final Four, nor are they favored to win the Big Ten. When you aren't a one-and-done program and lose three players to the NBA and over 60 percent of your scoring, that should come as no surprise.

No National Player of the Year in Frank Kaminsky. No sidekicks in Sam Dekker, Duje Dukan, Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson.

But none of that is to say the Badgers won't be any good. It's not to say that they can't make the Final Four (they opened the season of their 2014 Final Four run ranked No. 21). It's not to say that they can't mess around and win the Big Ten.

Moreover, if the Badgers don't achieve either of those things, that's not to say it can't still be a fun season in Madison.

In Hayes, the Badgers have one of the top players in the nation once again. Through just over two weeks of practices open to the media, he looks even better than at the tail end of last season. His ball handling is much improved, his footwork is poetic and he is creating shots for himself from multiple spots on the floor.

Koenig isn't far behind. His court awareness was already impressive, and now it is even more noteworthy. Now in a greater role, he is playing with more aggression and attacking the basket with frequency. Even with all of that, it would be a shock to not see him shoot 40 percent from three.

Those two players alone can make the Badgers potent, but they will need some help.

Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ has emerged from the shadows of the big men that came before him. If you follow any of the men's basketball beat writers on Twitter, you're probably aware that he does something almost daily that is eye-catching.

Happ, however, has yet to play a minute of live college basketball. Aside from Hayes and Koenig, the only two current players that were parts of the Badgers' primary rotation last season are guard Zak Showalter and forward Vitto Brown. Those two combined for only 479 minutes played last season and now, along with Happ, project to round out the starting five.

After that, the questions really start rolling in. How will freshmen Charlie Thomas and Khalil Iverson do in their minutes? Will any other freshmen crack the court? What kind of production will the Badgers get out of Jordan Hill at backup point guard?

The answers to all those questions will surely play themselves out, but there is something that shouldn't be questioned coming into the season.

These Badgers will form a fun group. Enjoy them.

Enjoy the talents of Hayes and Koenig. Enjoy seeing various players step up throughout the season. Enjoy the half-Hulk, half-rebounding machine that Thomas looks to be. Enjoy the cast of characters that still forms one of the nation's loosest bunches. And, possibly most importantly, enjoy what could be Ryan's last season.

Throughout October practices, seeping into November, there has been clear development already for the Badgers. That will assuredly carry over into the regular season as Ryan continues to get the most out of each of his guys. How far this Badgers team can go, nobody really knows.

Just enjoy it.