Friday's season opener pits Big Ten conference favorite Wisconsin against the Northern Kentucky Norse, who finished eighth (9-21, 5-13) in a 10-team Atlantic Sun conference a year ago.
The Norse return all their firepower from last season, however, including 6-4 guard Chad Jackson. Jackson was NKU's second-leading scorer two years ago, but uniquely redshirted as a senior last season in hopes of making the NCAA tournament in 2015 with the Norse, who have been ineligible for postseason play since reclassifying to Division I two years ago. Unfortunately, the NCAA rule which requires a four-year transition before gaining eligibility was not amended to two years, meaning Jackson's hopes have been dashed.
Northern Kentucky may juggle their standard starting lineup to get more size on the court to start the game, but they will be severely overmatched against Wisconsin's frontcourt regardless. So instead of giving you keys to the Badgers winning the game, just keep these four things in mind as you prepare for game number one.
1. Raising the Final Four banner
Get to the Kohl Center early (~7:40 pm), be loud and enjoy the goosebumps tonight. Being in the crowd for the raising of the men's hockey national championship banner to start the 2007 season still rates as one of my favorite moments ever as a Wisconsin fan. For basketball fans, this one should be just about as sweet.
2. Does Ethan Happ play?
Happ is very torn between taking a redshirt this season to gain a valuable fifth year or playing right away in hopes of helping the Badgers get back to the Final Four. I get the sense that if Happ decided to give it a go, he'd play pretty early in the game against the Norse. The fact that the staff reportedly hasn't been able to give him a good estimate of how much time is available tells me that he and Vitto Brown still are not too far apart in their current on-court value.
By the same token, keep an eye on Brown's minutes. Incidentally, his previous high was seven scoreless minutes against Eastern Kentucky.
3. Josh Gasser's minutes
Gasser played an enormous amount last season despite being just a year removed form a major knee injury. In fact, he played fewer than 29 minutes only four times. Gasser has logged heavy minutes form the moment he stepped on campus and I'd be expecting the same this season. With Brust gone, Gasser is really the only seasoned option at off-guard this year -- though the guard position isn't exactly lacking with Bronson Koenig ready to step in.
As this Dan Hanner analysis shows, when using a "three-bigs" lineup, Wisconsin was at its most efficient last season when they paired those forwards with a true point guard-shooting guard pairing. With Jackson and Koenig the point men in this year's three-man backcourt weave, you know Gasser will need all the rest he can get when the game's outcome is no longer in doubt.
4. Sam Dekker's ankle
Is it okay? Is Dekker able to dunk at a level befitting a preseason All-American? Does his full-court play make you rise out of your seat at least twice Friday night? Is he appropriately aggressive or playing it safe? Obviously these questions are a little tongue-in-cheek. But technically this is Dekker's season debut and expectations are as high as ever. Tonight is the first step.
Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!
For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.