Following Bo Ryan's lead, I'm trying with all my might to focus on "next." Only now, sadly, next can only refer to next season.
Quickly turning the page from the most enjoyable Wisconsin basketball season in my lifetime (or any other, frankly) is not easy. However, it is important. We will all take a step back and develop some perspective on what we've witnessed before diving right back in for a seat on the next ride. I cannot predict whether this time will pass quickly or slowly for each of you reading this, but I guarantee that when you are ready, you will be trying to answer the following six questions.
1. Who leaves early for the NBA?
Wisconsin loses four seniors for certain, but it's the as yet unknown losses that will define the ceiling of next year's team. Luckily, we'll get the answer to this question soon, as the early entry deadline is April 26.
Draft Express projects Sam Dekker as the No. 15 pick in this summer's NBA Draft, up from No. 21 just a few weeks ago. After the run Dekker went on in the NCAA Tournament, fans are bracing themselves for his imminent departure. Like Frank Kaminsky, Dekker returned this season to take care of unfinished business, but also to continue refining his game after a bit of a lackluster sophomore campaign. The junior forward hit the weight room hard in the offseason and after enduring a nagging injury early in the year, made a strong finishing kick that earned him All-Big Ten Second Team honors and a host of admirers during the tourney. He looked more assertive in the post, stronger on the glass and carried UW for stretches after Traevon Jackson went down.
Dekker can still get better. Consider what Dekker's stock would look like if he becomes a lethal three-point shooter and starts getting to the free throw line 5-6 times each game. He's be a monster. But how much higher can his draft stock get? Is it worth risking millions to come back now that he's got Final Fours and Big Ten championships on his resume? I don't buy the argument saying Dekker would wait a year for the NBA salary cap to balloon. Nor do I think it's wise to risk injury. Heck, Dekker's stock could deflate just because the talent around him isn't nearly as solid as what Frank Kaminsky returned to this season. That is when reality comes and slaps us in the face. Accept it.
What would really hurt the team in the immediate future would be losing six players. Wisconsin avoided that scenario when sophomore Nigel Hayes said he would return next season. Hayes started to appear as a potential first-round pick on Chad Ford's draft board over at ESPN (insider) and is a borderline lottery pick in the 2016 draft according to DraftExpress.com, so it's clear Hayes' stock is soaring. He may work behind the scenes to get constructive feedback on his game from NBA scouts, but Hayes will play his junior season in Madison.
2. Is Wisconsin done recruiting for 2015?
It really stung to lose Diamond Stone to another Big Ten school, seemingly at the 11th hour. One side effect is that Wisconsin has another open scholarship to play with for the 2015 class (and two more if you are banking on Dekker to leave). However, it seems highly unlikely that the coaching staff will use that opening for the incoming class.
The three glaring holes on next year's squad are a true center, a dependable shooting threat at the two-guard and a backup point guard. At this stage, guard is the easier position at which to uncover a gem, since most 6'9 to 7-feet-tall players that can walk and chew gum at the same time have already been showered with offers. Is taking a flyer on a late bloomer really going to give UW anything that Brevin Pritzl, Khalil Iverson, Charlie Thomas or Alex Illikainen cannot? Holding the open scholarships for 2016 allows for two new recruits in the class and evens out the class sizes a bit. And don't forget Ethan Happ redshirting means he's effectively a 2015 recruit too.
3. Where will the scoring come from next season?
Hayes and Koenig silly. Even anticipating a step back from this year's historic offense though, the Badgers need much more than that. Someone else will blossom with an increased workload, the fun part is trying to blindly predict who that will be.
Happ and Jordan Hill are coming off redshirt seasons, so they are pretty unknown quantities. Maybe Riley Dearring shocks the world and turns into the next Adam Morrison! Hmmm ...
This is the part that is exciting and scary all at the same time.
Even without Stone, the incoming freshmen class is very intriguing. Pritzl could be a godsend at shooting guard though he'll have to pick up his defense to see the floor. He and Zak Showalter could form a very nice platoon if that happens. With Hayes, Happ and Vitto Brown set as the likely frontcourt rotation, one of the big guys will definitely have a chance to make an early impact. I like Illikainen's chances, since he is the more polished offensive player and UW will need some punch off the bench. Illikainen spent a year playing for a stacked prep school, so his adjustment to the college level shouldn't be as severe as others.
4. Will Hayes be a frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year?
Hayes made quite a jump from Sixth Man of the Year to consensus Third Team All-Big Ten and All-Tournament Team honors. What's next?
If Hayes can make another leap this offseason, he will be in the discussion for conference Player of the Year honors, maybe even All-American honors. Having dramatically improved his shooting ability as a sophomore, the biggest area of improvement heading into his junior year needs to come on the defensive end, where Hayes is still a bit prone to silly fouls. With so much firepower missing, Hayes will be counted on to score more, so I don't see his offensive rebounding numbers going up, but he will be statistically superior in most categories kind of by default.
We have to wait and see who all bolts to the pros first, but Hayes would be right next to guys like Melo Trimble, A.J. Hammons and Denzel Valentine in the mix for First Team All-Conference honors.
5. Is Ethan Happ the real deal?
Happ generated a lot of late buzz about himself before arriving on campus, then he immediately began pushing Vitto Brown for minutes at forward in early practices. Happ is known to be a well-rounded player, but especially a tenacious rebounder; he's not afraid to mix it up inside. I am less worried about Happ's defense than most first-year players in recent memory, as he's already been lauded for his work ethic and ability to learn quickly.
As you might have guessed from my discussion of Wisconsin's scoring options, I'm not convinced Happ can be a go-to scorer inside right out of the gate. Assistant coach Gary Close has been working with Happ all year to transform his funky shooting delivery and a general comfort level with the ball in your hands in live game action is going to come gradually. But the biggest thing in Happ's favor really is how well his game fits in with Koenig and Hayes, especially with Hayes developing into an inside-out threat. Taking everything into account, fans should feel pretty fortunate to have a young guy like Happ available next season.
6. How much longer will Bo Ryan coach?
People to love to discuss the ensuing question about who succeeds Bo, but none of that talk matters until the day Ryan announces his retirement.
Opinions vary greatly on this topic. Ryan will turn 68 in December and is one of the oldest active head coaches already. Personally, I think Ryan has about four or five good years left. Just a guess. Some people I've talked to laugh at the notion he'll do anything other than coach until he croaks. Is he even more motivated now that he came so close to the ultimate goal?
Health issues forced Lute Olson out of coaching for good at age 74. Jim Boeheim is 70 and will be gone in 3 years. Larry Brown is 74 and looks it. Bo will stop and enjoy life at some point, but he enjoys coaching so much, how could it get better? The truth is that high-level Division 1 coaches don't stay pacing the sidelines once age 75 is in view, they just don't. That puts Ryan at seven years tops -- in other words, at this very moment, he may still be only two-thirds of the way through his Wisconsin head coaching stint in that scenario. Impressive. Maybe he's going for the Bobby Bowden look after all... or should I say, Tevester Anderson.
Bo is a true wild card.
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