The Badgers are losing a combined 90.8 minutes, 27.5 points, 19.5 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game (and one jump-shooting free-thrower) from the graduation of Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans, and Mike Bruesewitz. These players were undoubtedly the key to Wisconsin's success last season, as they finished fourth in the Big Ten and earned a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, only to lose in the first round to Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss. The 2012-2013 Badgers team was defined by fluidity and inconsistency of guard play, beginning with Josh Gasser's season ending injury shortly before the start of the season. Going into this year the backcourt seems to be the strength of this Wisconsin team, as all of the main departures from last year were in the frontcourt.
Last season also saw the emergence of Sam Dekker, who earned All-Big Ten and Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors, while starting only three games. All signs point to Dekker being the leader of this team, and certainly the leader of the frontcourt. 6' 11" junior Frank Kaminsky will be a key component on this team, as he has spent his first two seasons coming off the bench as a backup forward. He has shown plenty of signs of great offensive ability, but he will be forced into a significant role on this team for the first time. Wisconsin's freshman class is filled with talented forwards who will look to make an instant impact on this relatively thin group of big men.
I would not be surprised if Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky are the only true forwards to start a game for the Badgers this season. They are the only members of this frontcourt with any significant playing experience, and Wisconsin's group of guards is very deep. That being said, there are many players who have significant upside and potential who will be fighting for playing time. I predict that at least one "under-the-radar" forward will make significant progress throughout the season to become a key player, and possibly start some games for Bo Ryan's squad.
There is a buzz of anticipation surrounding this team unlike anything Wisconsin basketball has felt in a while. There seems to be a shift in the style and the attitude of this team, a movement towards more electrifying basketball. The centerpiece of this movement is standout sophomore Sam Dekker. Last season, Dekker showed flashes of absolute dominance, but was certainly timid at times as he tried to figure out his role on the floor. While only starting three games, Dekker still earned various conference honors, and probably created more Sports Center worthy highlights than in Berggren's, Evans', and Brusewitz's careers combined. Dekker had Badger fans feeling like Father Pat with beautiful fast breaks and explosive dunks.
Dekker, and other Badgers have acknowledged this potential shift to a faster-tempo this season. The Badgers will undoubtedly be employing a small lineup, especially compared to last season. Having three guards on the floor with Dekker has plenty of big-play potential.
Dekker showed signs of greatness last year, but he certainly will have to make significant improvements in his overall game to be the leader that this team needs. All signs point to him doing so. Rarely does Bo Ryan single out players for praise, but he seems to recognize the potential. At Wisconsin's media day, Ryan said "he's in the process of really tinkering with being pretty special...it's going to be on him how far he wants to take it". Other players have recognized his improvement, and they all seem to believe that he is going to be the star that Badger fans are hoping for. Dekker led the team through their preseason tour of Canada, scoring 19.4 points per game, while averaging 8.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
Dekker's biggest offensive strengths are his pure shooting stroke and ability to hit 3-pointers, his versatility, and his high basketball IQ with an incredible engine. Dekker is a 6' 7" power forward can consistently hit 3's (shot 41.8 percent for three during Big Ten play) who fits perfectly in Bo Ryan's system.
Last season he was the most dangerous in catch and shoot situations, perfect for the swing offense. He did not make many mid-range jumpers, or shots off the dribble, but I would attribute some of this to freshman nerves and over thinking. Dekker's feel and versatility without the ball in his hands are what make him so dangerous. He moves off the ball very well, with a great ability to cut behind the defense to get an open opportunity for a dunk or layup. Once he gets some open floor, he is able to explode and quickly get to the rim. He successfully comes off screens and curls and is able to attack and get to the rim with only a small opening. He should have even more opportunities to drive inside this year, as he was mainly used as shooter last season. His transition game is excellent, he is very smooth and opportunistic when there is open space. Dekker isn't an elite athlete, but he consistently gives maximum effort and uses his length efficiently. He has already shown many examples of keeping plays alive on the offensive glass, or using his length to get steals and cause havoc defensively.
When watching this highlight video, pay attention to catch and shoot 3-point situations, and the way he is able to explode when given a lane or open floor, whether it is in transition, off a screen, or cutting without the ball.
Dekker's biggest weaknesses are mainly on the defensive side of the ball. He isn't huge for his frame, at only 220 pounds, and is able to be knocked around on screens, while struggling to keep strong forwards away from the rim. This is concerning going into this season as he will usually be the second biggest player on the court for Wisconsin, and will be tasked with guarding opposing power forwards. Last season he was fairly efficient defensively, chasing shooters around the court and using his height to his advantage, however he will have to be a post defender this year. That being said, he should be stronger and more confident with a year under his belt, feeling more comfortable in Bo Ryan's defense. Additionally, his defensive rebounding stats (3.8 rebounds per 40 min. played) are significantly less than one might hope. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the rebounding prowess of Berggren and Evans, but he did seem outmatched on the defensive glass. The Badgers will likely struggle with defensive rebounding if he isn't significantly contributing.
While Dekker seems to undoubtedly be set for a breakout season, the success of this team and of the frontcourt may depend on the success of Frank Kaminsky. Frank averaged just 10.3 minutes and 4.2 points per game last season. His playing time was greatly constrained by the aforementioned senior forwards, and he played solid when he did get the opportunity, sometimes offering a spark on the offensive end. He led all players with 20+ free throw attempts, with a .767 free throw percentage, and was able to hit 3-pointers coming off the bench (he shot .311 from behind the arc on the season).
The biggest question facing Kaminsky is whether he can step up and contribute consistently as Wisconsin's starting center. The Badgers would like him to contribute around 30 minutes per game, as the only true big man on the roster, besides Evan Anderson. He will need to eat up rebounds, to replace the rebounding contributions of last year's seniors. He certainly will need to improve his rebounding efficiency, especially on the defensive glass. Wisconsin's summer trip to Canada show encouraging signs for Frank and the Badgers, as he averaged 15.0 points per game over the five game stretch, finishing with a 26 point 11 rebound effort. If he can provide consistency both offensively and defensively for the Badgers, they should have a very solid starting five, able to compete with the conference's best.
Behind Dekker and Kaminsky, the fight for playing time as a backup is pretty much wide open. Of all of the remaining forwards on the roster (Evan Anderson, Aaron Moesch, Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown, Duje Dukan, Zach Bohannon) the true freshman Hayes and redshirt junior Dukan appear to be primed for significant playing time, fighting for the main backup forward position. If either of these players steps up their game significantly, we could see them starting games this season.
Nigel Hayes (6' 7" 250 lbs.) is a 4-star forward, and was ESPN's 83rd ranked overall recruit, picking Wisconsin over Ohio State, among other offers. Hayes averaged 15.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.2 blocks per game as a senior at Whitmer High School in Toledo, Ohio. Hayes is the heaviest player on Wisconsin's roster, and has already received praise from his teammates about his size and strength, as they told Fox Sports Wisconsin's Jesse Temple.
The transition for a big man from high school to the Big Ten is obviously difficult, but if Hayes is able to get comfortable and confident early on, he will certainly be a factor on this team. Bo Ryan would love to throw him in to back up Dekker or Kaminsky, or to go big with three forwards, using Hayes' size as a low presence offensively and defensively. If Hayes can utilize his size and versatility to get rebounds and defend consistently, he will receive an opportunity to play on a nightly basis.
Duje Dukan (6' 9" 220 lbs.) hasn't played more than 11 minutes in any game so far in his career, but did have a strong showing in Canada, averaging 8.8 points per game. Dukan spent last year as a redshirt, after suffering from mononucleosis at the beginning of the season. Dukan considers himself lucky for being forced to redshirt, as he likely would have rarely left the bench last season. Now, with two years left, Dukan is looking to be a key contributor for this team, which needs forwards to step up.
Other players with an outside chance to get some time this year are freshman Vitto Brown and redshirt junior Evan Anderson. Brown (6' 8" 237 lbs.) is a defensive and rebounding specialist, but is unlikely to be ready to play significantly in Bo Ryan's system as a freshman. Evan Anderson (6' 10" 245 lbs.) certainly has the size to play, but he has never looked quick or skilled enough to compete in the Big Ten, but this year Anderson wants to fulfill the expectations placed on him as a recruit.
Biggest Question: Will Frank finally be freed?
Big Frank Kaminsky has been a fan favorite since his arrival in Madison two years ago. UW students have begged for increased playing time for Kaminsky, such as through the "#freefrank" social media campaign. This year, Frank will finally have the opportunity to run free. For the Badgers to be successful this season, he must take advantage of this opportunity and be a consistent inside force offensively and defensively. Doing so would consistently make the jobs for everyone else on the team easier, giving space and options to Dekker and Wisconsin's guards. It's hard to argue with Bo Ryan's constraint of Frank over his first two years, but now he must show that he is ready to be unleashed.
The success of this Wisconsin Badgers team will likely ride with the success of their forwards. In the best case scenario, Sam Dekker will be the Big Ten Player of the Year and Frank Kaminsky will provide solid and consistently play inside, averaging over 30 minutes per night, with Nigel Hayes stepping up to Big Ten competition as one of the conference's best freshman big men. In the worst case, Dekker still is unable to play consistent defense and is shoved around inside by the Big Ten's forwards, with Kaminsky not being able to play as an everyday center, and the Badgers get consistently dominated inside. Most signs point to the Badgers being well prepared, having made significant strides in the offseason, but it is still preseason and everyone is optimistic. These forwards will face their first big test in less than a week, when 10th ranked Florida comes to Madison.