College football is just getting underway, but it is never too early to talk about Wisconsin basketball. We all know about the success of last year's team, but unfortunately the Badgers are almost certainly going to take a step back in 2016. Wisconsin has home-and-home sets with Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Purdue, and Michigan State. Yeah, that's as rough as anyone else in the conference. The Badgers will not catch many breaks in their non-conference schedule too.
A rematch against Duke in the championship of this fall's 2K Classic would certainly top the list of regular season highlights, but the Badgers and Blue Devils have some work to do to guarantee that matchup. With that in mind, let's take a look at five games that will surely test Wisconsin come this season.
1. Away @ Oklahoma, November 29
Oklahoma saw one of their most successful seasons in more than a decade come to a somewhat surprising end in their Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State. However, the Sooners are still loaded with talent, led by senior guard Buddy Hield. The reigning Big 12 Player of the Year opted to come back for his senior year and is going to bring back his 17 points per game. With him come three other returning starters. This will be a great early test for the Badgers as OU's backcourt should make for a nice challenge for the likes of Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter. Bo Ryan's club must slow down Hield and the Sooners as they love to play in transition and get easy buckets. Oklahoma projects to be a top-15 team this season so UW needs to be on their game before December even starts.
2. Home vs. Purdue, December 29
The following month, the Badgers start their Big Ten schedule and with it comes a doozy of a team. Purdue has one of the best frontcourts in the entire nation. A.J Hammons, Vince Edwards, and five-star recruit Caleb Swanigan lead a budding Boilermaker club that is sure to give the Badgers fits. Wisconsin's front court is going to face some issues after losing both Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker; Purdue is sure to be one of the teams Wisco struggles with the most. Purdue came on strong towards the end of last season and are sure to be a contender for the league crown this season, right after the likes of Maryland and Indiana. The Big Ten's top seven teams are all so loaded, Purdue and Wisconsin included, that nothing will come easy. What a way to dive into the conference schedule.
3. Away @ Indiana, January 5
This is the beginning of Wisconsin's hardest stretch of the season: at Indiana, home against Maryland, at Northwestern, and in Madison vs. Michigan State. Again, the Big Ten is a gauntlet this season. Indiana is going to be one of the toughest outs in the conference, led by senior stud Yogi Ferrell, who is going to be a prominent Player of the Year candidate for the Big Ten. Wisco can certainly beat the Hoosiers, but they are going to need a big effort from their guards yet again. Koenig stepped up in place of Traevon Jackson last season, but now he is the leading man in the backcourt and he is sure to be matched up with the speedy Ferrell. Nigel Hayes is going to need to take advantage of the Hoosiers weaker frontcourt and be the standout player Badger nation needs him to be. If Wisco wants to finish in the top third of the conference, they are going to need to go on the road and beat teams such as the Hoosiers.
4. Home vs. Maryland, January 9
Both times the Badgers lock up with the Terps will be big games, but one can never say enough about how important it is for the Badgers to make sure they protect home court at the Kohl Center. If the Badgers can split with arguably the most talented team in the country, head coach Bo Ryan has to be satisfied. Where to start with UMD? Melo Trimble is primed to be a Player of the Year candidate in his sophomore campaign at College Park, and the team scooped up five-star recruit Diamond Stone. Stone may have his best performance of the season against the smaller Badger front line and Hayes may have trouble with the length of Maryland, especially graduate transfer Rasheed Sulaimon. The one thing going for the Badgers in this game is that they have a great coach and a great system, and sometimes that's all you need on certain nights. I'll be in the stands on the ninth watching this one and I'm hoping there will be some court storming. It's got to happen once, right?
5. Home vs. Michigan, February 28
Fast forward a month and a half after the Maryland game, the Badgers are going to be battle-tested and ready for anything. Michigan is the enigma of the Big Ten in my eyes. They bring back some talent—led by Caris LeVert who is sure to have a stellar campaign after having last season cut short—and have the athleticism to beat some teams that they may be weaker than. I like the matchup for the Badgers because Hayes is going to be the best frontcourt option there and the Wolverines will struggle to stop the all-around beast from making plays all over the floor. Michigan may have more talent, but if last season's team is any indication of this season, they are prone to letdowns and not playing up to their potential, while Badger teams always seem to rise to the occasion. These two clubs are sure to be jockeying for position at this point in the season, say around the three through six spots, so this game could have a lot of implications for the Big Ten tournament.
It's going to be especially interesting watching Wisconsin this season. They are going to be unique in a sense that it is time for a new era of players to step up and take on the roles that Badger legends have left. In what potentially is his final season, Bo Ryan has been given one of the most difficult schedules in all of college basketball, but if anyone can manage it, it's him.