Wisconsin can achieve a lot because of the talent that exists coming into this year. Last year's team was "lucky" in the sense that it never had to overcome injuries. The hope will be for this year’s Badgers to encounter the same and not face anything like the Brian Butch elbow injury of the 2007 season or Gasser’s ACL tear of two years ago. Without something catastrophic happening along the same lines as those injuries, the Badgers will ascend to the top of the conference.
The trouble lies in the NCAA Tournament, where anything can happen. Wisconsin will have to be firing on all cylinders to advance to the Final Four again. The Badgers started playing their best basketball of the year at the right time and played with a chip on their shoulder. Rather than walking around like big men on campus, they need to be hungry in order to win their first regular-season Big Ten title since 2008.
Sam Dekker has fallen by the wayside with all of the talk about Frank Kaminsky. Personally, I am looking for Dekker to have the biggest impact on the team this year. I think he has the potential to be the leading scorer on this team and think that he, not Kaminsky, will be the key to how this season’s group plays. The Badgers will look to him to lead by example and bail them out when the shot clock runs down much like what Ben Brust did in situations last season. While I think the team leader is Gasser, Kaminsky has never seemed interested in being a leader on the court. Dekker knows what great follow-up season to last year would mean to the state, being from Wisconsin. This will motivate him to perform at a level Badger fans have not seen yet. He also has the NBA hungry for his services and will be playing to rise up draft boards as well.
The First 2 Games
The First 2 Games
With a starting lineup of Traevon Jackson, Gasser, Dekker, Nigel Hayes and Kaminksy, Bronson Koenig will be the go-to man off of the bench. The 6’4" sophomore from La Crosse, Wis., will need to provide a spark off of the bench. He did a better job later in the season of doing this, but will need to find a role as more of a scorer than in the past. Koenig continues to show some of the best court vision of any point guard in the Bo Ryan era and demonstrates great basketball IQ with the decision he makes. What the Badgers need from him this season is a player who doesn’t miss a beat when he enters the game. He will need to show intensity on the defensive end, composure when he has the ball and an understanding of what is happening around him to be successful off the bench.
While this could've gone two ways, Zak Showalter could be a player who makes a bigger impact than what is maybe currently expected of him coming off a redshirt season. The redshirt sophomore showed good intensity on the defensive side of the ball his freshman year and athleticism that would make just about anyone envious. While the Badgers will not be looking for Showalter to be a scorer off the bench, they will look for him to keep order on the defensive end when their starting guards get in foul trouble. While Koenig will be the first guard off the bench, fans will be surprised by the skills Showalter brings to the table.
Overall, Showalter will be used more in Big Ten play during the gritty moments of the second half in games against formidable opponents. Ryan has never been one to second-guess going to the bench. Remember Clayton Hanson? He was a guy who seemed to always do the right things. He never wowed you with his skills, didn’t score a ton of points but had the ability to put the ball in the basket, and played sound defense. That’s who Showalter can be this year. He will capitalize on the opportunities that Ryan gives him and find his way on the court.
Gasser, the fifth-year senior, flies under the radar with all of the little things he does. . He is the leader of the team without a doubt and has the ability to score, too. Gasser gives 110 percent on the floor and knows what it is like to have the game taken away. He is hungry to represent the school and the state. Gasser plays great defense and seems to always be at the right spot at the right time. He reminds me of a mixture between Joe Krabbenhoft’s hustle and intensity on the court and Michael Flowers’ intellect and defensive intangibles. He will be the piece that holds this team together when it faces adversity, and while I'm not willing to say the team will go as he goes, I think he is an integral part to the way this team performs.
The Badgers will face stiff competition in the Battle 4 Atlantis, where I see them losing one or potentially two games in. The Duke game looms large when they get back, and I think this is a true benchmark game and an indicator as to how Big Ten play will go. Playing the likes of potentially Florida and then a North Carolina or UCLA in the Bahamas, followed by Duke and Marquette, looks very similar to the last four games of the season for the Badgers. It’s a grueling stretch, but the Battle 4 Atlantis and the ensuing games will help prepare the team. To round out non-conference play, the game in at Cal could be a potential trap game. The game is right before Christmas and just after finals, and it could be a tough one for the Badgers.
In Big Ten play, there is always a guaranteed game that you will lose to a lesser opponent that you shouldn’t. Other than the games at Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska (look for one loss among these games), the Badgers should -- hypothetically -- breeze through their schedule until the last two weeks. The Badgers will play three games on the road against Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio State, with a home game against Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans sprinkled in. The Badgers will be lucky to leave that stretch with one loss, but look for them to go .500 over that stretch of four games.
Wisconsin will win the Big Ten regular-season title, but not without hiccups along the way. The Big Ten wears on a team, but makes it ready for the NCAA Tournament. This year’s team will have a similar record to last year’s team. I predict the Badgers will go 11-2 in non-conference play and 15-3 in conference play for an overall 26-5 heading into the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. This team will win the Big Ten outright during the regular season and be a force to be reckoned with as the NCAA Tournament looms.