After a trip to North Texas for the final four, the Badgers are coming off of their most successful season since 2000. The Badgers were a missed bank shot from the elbow by Traevon Jackson away from playing in the national championship, which would have been their first since the Badgers won their lone basketball championship in 1941.
The Badgers come into this season as favorites to win the Big Ten, boasting preseason All-American Frank Kaminsky and preseason first team all-Big Ten pick Sam Dekker. Wisconsin started the same starting five in all 38 of their games last season. The team returns four of its five starters from last season and 80 percent of their scoring from a season ago. The Badgers look to live up to the preseason hype and travel to Indianapolis for the Final Four once again this season.
What the Badgers lost
Wisconsin loses three players from last season in Evan Anderson, Zach Bohannon, and Ben Brust. The Badgers may have only lost 20 percent of their scoring from last season, but that 20 percent came mainly from Ben Brust, who is now playing basketball in Lithuania for Pieno Zvaigzdes where he is averaging 27.5 minutes and 10.5 points per game. Brust averaged 12.8 points per game last season, second most on the team, with 4.5 rebounds per game and a 39 percent conversion rate from three point land. His presence as a scorer, rebounder, and leader will be greatly missed.
The other two loses in Anderson and Bohannon may not be viewed as huge loses as both averaged a combine 1.3 points per game, but they were very experienced and meshed well with the team. Bohannon is still at Madison getting his MBA while Anderson chose to forgo his last year of eligibility upon graduation. If not for his play, Anderson will definitely be remembered for his dance moves as the Badgers progressed through the NCAA tournament.
The Badgers bring in three new freshman to the team in Matt Ferris, TJ Schlundt and Ethan Happ. Matt Ferris is 6’6" walk-on guard from Appleton, Wisconsin. Highlights here He brings good size to the backcourt, but should not factor into the Badgers big scheme of things this season and may still redshirt. TJ Schlundt is a 6’5" walk-on shooting guard from St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy Highlights here (same high school as Trevon Hughes), but played his first three years at Oconomowoc High School in Wisconsin. He has shown flares of his ability, including scoring in double digits at the Red-White scrimmage, but has chosen to redshirt this season along with sophomore Jordan Hill.
This leads us to the only Badger on scholarship from the 2014 recruiting class, Ethan Happ. Highlights Happ is a 6’9" forward from Taylor Ridge, Illinois. He provides great intensity while on the court and an uncanny ability to crash the boards as was seen in the exhibition game against UW-Parkside. He is still mulling over whether to redshirt this season or not, but could provide some frontcourt help if he does chose to play this season.
While the Badgers lose Brust from a year ago, they return Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig. Jackson and Gasser will continue to start, as was the case last year, and Koenig seems to be the sixth man of this years squad.
Jackson has been scrutinized for his sometimes-poor decision-making, he brings three years of experience and 10.7 points per game back. Jackson also averaged 4 assists per game. He will be the court general this season, orchestrating the Badgers offense, and while some fans may gripe about Jackson, it is undeniable the late-game heroics he brings to the team. Fans can’t forget this or this or this.
Josh Gasser is a fifth year senior who is now two years removed from tearing his ACL. The redshirt senior returns to the Badgers averaging 8.8 points per game, grabbing 4 rebounds a game, and a 2.25 assist to turnover ratio from last season. Gasser has the ability to replace Brust’s ability to shoot from three, as he hit 43 percent of the shots from outside that he took. He shot far less than the former guard, but if Gasser starts to get confident in his stroke look for him to take the shots from the outside that Brust did last season. Gasser is a very cerebral player who is a hard-working student of the game. A Bo Ryan on the court so-to-speak. In years previous we have seen Gasser score in bunches and then go cold, but he was more consistent in his scoring last year. Look for him to take a bigger role in his last season for the Badgers and be a leading scorer on the team.
Off the bench, the Badgers will rely on sophomore Bronson Koenig to eat minutes when Jackson and Gasser are taking a breather. Koenig played in all but one game last season for the Badgers and averaged 15.5 minutes and 3.5 points per game, but showed his ability to be a threat in the Final Four game against Kentucky where he had all 11 of his points in the first half and gave the Badgers a spark they desperately needed. Koenig has textbook shooting fundamentals and with some confidence early in the season could be a major threat for the Badgers, much like Nigel Hayes was last season.
The other major contributor for the Badgers in the backcourt is Zak Showalter who redshirted last season. Showalter may be the best jumper on the team, with bounce that is out of this world for a 6’2" guard. He has shown the ability to be a defensive asset and an active rebounder. Look for him to play about ten minutes a game and be a spark defensively off the bench when he enters much like Michael Flowers early in his career. Riley Dearring, Jordan Smith, and Aaron Moesch will see limited time this season, but could be seen early in the season if games become blowouts.
With no disrespect to the backcourt players, the frontcourt is LOADED with talent. Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes and Frank Kaminsky all return.
Nigel Hayes was a spark off the bench last season. He was a rebounding force and built a persona as being an inside presence through a silky set of post moves. The Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year looks poised to be the player who will be inserted into the starting lineup this season alongside Dekker and Kaminsky. Hayes developed a three point shot this summer, and showcased it at the exhibition game, but don’t expect him to stray away from what he knows best just because he has another weapon in the arsenal. Look for Hayes to be the leading rebounder alongside Kaminsky on the team. Hayes could be in for a big season.
Dekker wowed those at the Lebron James camp this summer, even matched up with James. ESPN Analyst Jay Bilas gave rave reviews of Dekker on ESPN Wisconsin this week. (jump to the 4 minute mark) Dekker is a preseason all-Big Ten player. Look for him to not be so streaky this season. Dekker will be more aggressive attacking the rim and will score about 15 points per game this season.
Frank, Frank, Frank. That is all the nation has heard about this offseason. Kaminsky is a 7 footer who stretches teams outside because of his ability to shoot the three. Coming off a season where he averaged nearly 14 points per game and had an great NCAA tournament, the expectations are taller than Kaminsky this season. While many are expecting him to average a double-double this season and be the leading force on the team, be cautious in this rose colored view of the center. While Kaminsky has the potential to be this season’s Wooden Award winner - and first contender since Alando Tucker – he has also shown the ability to play like he is 6’3" at times against physical teams. While this was more-so early in the season last year, it will be interesting to see how Frank responds early in the season when he should be dominating games. Look for the big man to average 16 points and 8 rebounds per game this season.
Off the bench, the Badgers showcase Duje Dukan, Vitto Brown and potentially Ethan Happ. Dukan showed what he has the potential to do on a big stage against Kentucky, knocking down key shots in the first half. The 6’10" forward needs to improve his defense this season because he looked to be a liability in that area at times, but he is a good shooter and could be this season’s sixth man. He will largely be relied on to relieve Kaminsky and Hayes. Vitto Brown has a nice stroke and is built like a linebacker. The 6’8" 237 pound Brown needs to refine his skills handling the ball in the post and get more confidence early in the season to be considered a threat off the bench, but the potential for the sophomore is there. Look for him to occasionally sing the national anthem and evolve into a better player as the season progresses. He could be a defensive substitute by the time Big Ten play comes around.
This team is projected to be a top squad in the nation and a main reason for this is the returning experience from a year ago. The Badgers lose one starter in Brust, but he is the only loss from their rotation of eight players who saw significant time last season. Virtually, this team and its significant players have all had a season to mesh together and will only continue to that process this season. The Badgers will add Brown and Showalter to the mix and will then go a player deeper than last year in the assumed nine-man rotation they will sport this season as opposed to last year’s eight man rotation. The experience of the team will show on the court again this year after ranking seventh in the country in offensive efficiency, the Badgers will only continue to get better in that respect.
Do not forget maybe the biggest strength the Badgers have in William Francis Ryan Jr. Bo Ryan has found a way every year that he has coach the Badgers to get his team in the top four of the Big Ten standings and make the NCAA tournament, which is unprecedented. Ryan preaches good defense, which they showed last season, holding opponents 64 points per game. He knows how to coach, doesn’t have the pressure of trying to get over the hump of making a Final Four and has arguably his most talented bunch of players ever to lead this season.
While the Badgers look to be one of the most complete teams in the country, there are a few questions that still remain. The Badgers relied at times on the three-point shot. Without Brust, players like Gasser, Koenig and Hayes will have to fill the void that he leaves.
Most importantly, this team has to deal with something that no recent Badger team has had to do. This year’s team must try to live up to the hype surrounding them. The 2000 team that last followed a Final Four squad went 18-11 under Brad Soderberg for most of the season. While that team had to deal with Dick Bennett leaving three games into the season, this year’s crew has much more talent and firepower to repeat their performance last season and go even further. Ryan has never had to deal with two guys being potential lottery picks and the pressure to keep them happy, while putting the team’s interests first. He is a great coach in his own respect, but he will have to dig back to his years at UW-Platteville to find ways to keep this group humble, hungry, and ready for a repeat appearance at the Final Four.