Three weeks after the heartbreaking loss at the hands of the Duke Blue Devils, I still cannot sleep over what happened in that ball game. Whether you ripped on the refs (like I have been) or are angered at the lackluster perimeter play on both sides of the court for Wisconsin in the final minutes, you have to understand that Duke's squad played a better game and that Wisconsin did all they could to come out with a victory that night.
Looking forward to the chance of making a third straight Final Four run, Wisconsin's roster has been ripped by departures.
As you know, Frank Kaminsky, who swept all National Player of the Year awards, leaves for the NBA after completing one of the greatest senior seasons in the history of college basketball. He will leave a huge hole at center and will be absolutely irreplaceable next season for Bo Ryan with an undersized front court going forward.
Josh Gasser was considered one of the best defenders in the entire country and the ultimate veteran glue guy for a very successful Badger squads. Traevon Jackson, although sometimes careless with the basketball, was a clutch shooting machine, great defender and distributor, with the knack for hitting shots from deep when they were needed most. Duje Dukan only played big minutes in his junior and senior seasons, but his length and outside shooting was instrumental in the Badgers uber-successful play in the last two years.
Finally, Sam Dekker decided to forgo his senior season and enter the NBA Draft following his impressive showing in the NCAA Tournament. His combination of slashing to the lane in beast fashion and nailing the game-sealing three-pointer in the Elite Eight victory over Arizona just shows the incredible offensive value Dekker brought to UW. And that is not all. His defense was underrated as a quick, 6'9 forward that could guard both opposing forward positions.
After reviewing the Badgers immense losses, here are my predictions for next season's Wisconsin men's basketball starting lineup and rotation.
Starter: Bronson Koenig, junior
If Bronson Koenig does not play more than 35 minutes per game as a junior next year, I would think Bo Ryan is going mad. Save maybe Nigel Hayes, Koenig will be the centerpiece and heart of next year's squad, and will likely be the team's leading scorer. His outside shooting will be essential with the losses of Kaminsky, Gasser, Dekker, and Jackson, along with the leadership load he will have to carry with the loss of all those veterans. His emergence when Jackson went down with injury showed his resilience and ability to step up to the plate, as the Badgers lost a total of two games with Koenig as the primary floor general. The one thing Koenig needs to work on this offseason is his defense. The main reason why Jackson started the season as the starting point guard was for his experience, but he also was a much better overall defender than Koenig. And Bronson is not a great perimeter or interior defender, so he will have to work on keeping his hands up while defending sweet-shooting guards, and keep slashing, powerful guards from getting into the lane.
In the rotation: Jordan Hill, redshirt sophomore
I think Jordan Hill will be the main backup to Koenig at point guard, as he possesses the size and athleticism, along with solid offensive and defensive discipline to thrive in Ryan's system. Hill used his redshirt last season, a smart decision as he could take the time to develop his game since he would not be receiving many minutes with Jackson, Koenig and Showalter ahead of him on the depth chart. The two things I like most about Hill is that he is a lengthy, strong guard who can punish smaller guards in the lane and that with some solid coaching, he could seamlessly take the floor general baton from Koenig and run with it. One main thing Hill will have to work on this summer is his shooting, as he went 1-for-4 from behind the arc and 4-for-7 (57.1%) from the charity stripe in the short 25 minutes he played during his freshman season in Madison. The other thing he must work on is mental discipline, especially defensively, as he had five personal fouls and two turnovers in the same very small sample period.
Starter: Zak Showalter, redshirt junior
We all know how much Coach Ryan values experience and defensive prowess in his guards -- any player for that matter -- and Zak Showalter completely embodies that. He brings feistiness and lane-jumping ability on defense, and aggressive, tough play on the offensive end. One thing that greatly separates Showalter from his predecessor Gasser, however, is that Showy has never been a top-notch, consistent shooter. He went an atrocious 2-for-14 from behind the arc last year, but rebounded quite well, averaging 1.3 boards in only 7.6 minutes per game. Showalter has been a proven commodity on defense, in transition, at the charity stripe (88.9%). and when crashing the boards. Although being 6'2 may hurt him a bit, his biggest weakness at this point in his career is his overall offensive production, especially when launching it from deep.
In the rotation: Brevin Pritzl, freshman
This De Pere, Wisconsin native is one of many big name in-state recruits to stay close and play for Ryan. Rated a Top 100 recruit by ESPN and 247 Sports, Pritzl will walk onto campus with minutes waiting for him, as the Badgers' guard depth looks bleak. One trait that Pritzl possesses that Showalter does not is a deadly shooter's mentality and a versatile offensive skill set that he can use on every possession. For this reason I truly believe that Showy and the incoming freshman will split minutes for the most part, with Showalter getting the slight advantage due to more experience and his aggressive defensive play style.
Starter: Nigel Hayes, junior
The one thing that truly amazed me about Hayes last season was the deadly use of his jump shot. He seemed to always hit the shot whenever the Badgers elite offense needed to get back on track. His physical play on both sides of the ball both out on the perimeter and in the paint will warrant him very large expectations for not only the University of Wisconsin and its international fan base but also from the rest of the college basketball world. I would not be surprised if Hayes was considered as either a first or second-team All-American selection nor would i be bewildered if Hayes is considered one of the very best players in the Big Ten during the 2015-2016 college basketball season. I forecast an incredible junior season for the already uber-talented and successful Nigel Hayes, as he becomes the unheralded captain of the basketball team and takes them back to the their successful Tournament ways.
In the rotation: Khalil Iverson, freshman
Many consider this to be Riley Dearring's spot to lose, and that may indeed be the case. But from the scouting reports and videos I have seen of this Khalil Iverson kid, the more I feel he can be the high-flying, momentum-swinging kind of player that Ryan usually lacks on his team. Ryan was quoted as being "ecstatic" to bring in Iverson, who averaged 17 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists as a high school senior. After developing under Ryan, Iverson could bring top-notch aggressive defense, an incredible ability to finish in transition offensively, along with toughness and the ability to crash the boards. If there could be one thing that I am most excited about for Iverson's decision to come to Madison is his highlight-reel, mouth-dropping dunks that shall happen while he dons the Cardinal and White.
Power Forward, Center
Starters: Ethan Happ, redshirt freshman & Vitto Brown, junior
I consider the two front court positions to be interchangeable for Ryan as both of these players bring their own diverse set of strengths and weaknesses to the hardwood. Most expect Vitto Brown to assume the center responsibilities from Kaminsky, as he is a bruising rebounder on both ends of the floor. The thing is that Brown's offensive skill set is limited, as he rarely bullies opponents on the low block and can only extend his shot to mid-range, and even those attempts are inconsistent. Ethan Happ is one of those players who has the size and talent to absolutely thrive in Bo's system. He is basically a more rugged stretch-four with the capabilities of hitting jumpers like Kaminsky, but is three to four inches shorter than Frank the Tank. If Happ develops his shot more, don't expect his career at Wisconsin to be a quiet one.
In the Rotation: Alex Illikainen, freshman
Alex Illikainen is coming to Madison as a coveted recruit from Minnesota (a state the Badgers have been successful finding talented basketball players in) via New Hampshire prep school. Illikainen has a chance to grab some minutes in the likely three-man front court rotation that Bo Ryan will employ next season as a bit of a more polished option than fellow freshman Charlie Thomas from Maryland. As long as he stays tough and patient while developing his all-around game on each side of the court, Illikainen could start for UW as early as his sophomore year, especially if Hayes declares early for the NBA Draft.
The Badgers' challenge is quite clear heading into the offseason. Wisconsin is going to be quite inexperienced, and likely without a single senior contributor, the Badgers could be one of the youngest teams in the Big Ten. Don't worry Badger Nation, even with the heart-breaking losses that this group experiences due to graduation and an early entrant, the Kohl Center will still be rocking this upcoming season, and another talented group of basketball players will prove to be successful once again.