Coming off the most successful campaign the Badgers have had since 2000, expectations could not be any higher around Madison for the 2014-15 season. Wisconsin comes into the year ranked as high as third in some polls, the highest ever preseason ranking for the program (previous was ninth in 2006), and is a fairly unanimous pick to win the Big Ten. Bo Ryan's boys are in uncharted waters and the hope around town is that this veteran team is the perfect one to navigate them.
The Badgers only lost one major rotation guy from their team, starting shooting guard Ben Brust. They return seven of their top eight scorers and rebounders and have a senior lead backcourt. While the Badgers will miss Brust's ability to hit a three and corral way more rebounds than a man has height should, they also won't be short on options on the offensive end. Wisconsin returns reigning Sixth Man of the Year Nigel Hayes, preseason All-B1G team member (and fifth best player in the conference according to us) Sam Dekker, and preseason conference player of the year, preseason first team All-America and Sports Illustrated cover boy Frank Kaminsky.
I haven't even mentioned the top guys coming off the bench who would be starting for Wisconsin in most any other year. This team is stacked, is what I'm getting at. Can the Badgers handle the pressure and expectations? Can Bo Ryan coax another Final Four run out of his team? Will Hayes spend more time interviewing teammates than working on his three point shot? All of these questions won't be fully answered until March, but it wouldn't be much fun if we couldn't try and answer them now.
Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Traevon Jackson, 6'3", senior
SG: Josh Gasser, 6'4", senior
SF: Sam Dekker, 6'9", junior
PF: Nigel Hayes, 6'8", sophomore
C: Frank Kaminsky, 7'0", senior
Sixth Man: Bronson Koenig, 6'4", sophomore
Under Bo Ryan, the starting lineup tends to pretty much stay the same the entire season regardless of talent level. For goodness sake I sat through an entire season of Andreas Helmigk starting every game and then usually being subbed out before the first TV timeout for someone better. But Helmigk was an upperclassman and...I'm getting off topic here. My point is, Ryan finds a starting five he likes and more often than not sticks with it, barring injury or wildly silly NCAA suspensions. One of the rare areas of debate surrounding the Badger team this summer/fall was who would fill the fifth starter spot vacated by Brust. There was a scientific poll conducted at Bucky's 5th Quarter and Hayes came out the winner with nearly 60% of the vote, so that's who were rolling with here. Last year, Dekker was kind of the power forward since Wisconsin started three guards, but this year he'll be back at his more comfortable wing position. It should spell trouble for opposing small forwards, since Dekker grew two inches this offseason and could now post up most power forwards. The sixth man will probably change depending on matchups. Koenig will fill that role against guard heavy teams and Duje Dukan (6'10" stretch four) will do so against taller opponents.
What to Watch For
Replacing Brust's shots - Brust attempted 115 more threes than the second closest guy on the Badgers last year. He made 49 more than the second closest guy. The guy taking his starting spot, Nigel Hayes, attempted exactly zero three pointers last year. Now, I'm making this sound more dire than it is. Hayes can shoot threes, he just didn't last year, and has been improving his perimeter game all offseason. He might just be the x-factor for Wisconsin's team this year. Another important thing to note is that everyone in Wisconsin's rotation can shoot the three. Everyone. While none of them are pure shooters like Brust, his loss will be everyone else's gain in the three point attempt department.
How will the rotation shake out - For the first time in a long time, the Badgers have seven (you could argue eight, but not well) guys who are capable starters. Last year the Badgers had three players average over 30 minutes per game and a fourth average 29.8. That doesn't leave a whole lot of time for the guys on the bench. We know Koenig and Dukan (once he returns from his two game suspension for selling WMDs to ISIS) will be the top two guys off the bench, but there is also Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter to consider. Brown showed an improved post game and rebounding prowess in the Red/White Scrimmage two weeks ago and Showalter redshirted last year, since there was a logjam at guard, but played some during his freshman season (a rarity for Ryan coached teams). All four of these guys will need minutes and they will probably come at the expense of the starters. Will this affect team chemistry? It may seem minor, but it is something to watch for. Hey, that's the name of this part of the post!
Can Traevon Jackson limit turnovers - Ball security is the most important facet of the game to Bo Ryan. The Badgers were third in the country in turnover percentage last year. That's ridiculously good, seeing as there are 351 teams in D-1 college basketball. The Badgers starting point guard has struggled with hanging on to the ball in the past, but since his freshman year his turnover percentage has gone from 25.5 to 22.0 to 17.8. Despite the marked improvement, that percentage was still, by far, the worst on the team of anyone that played more than 36 minutes all season. Jackson is a good point guard and has improved every year at Wisconsin. I think he will be first team all-conference this year. The only way any of this happens is if he continues to cut down on his turnovers. While there may be other "x-factors" and other better players on the team, in reality a good team only goes as far as its point guard takes them.
High expectations - The Badgers are criminally undervalued in preseason predictions normally. It is an annual tradition where pundits pick the Badgers to finish sixth and then, like clockwork, they are in the top four of the B1G. This year there may be the opposite problem. Wisconsin is picked by everyone to win the conference, be a top seed in the NCAA Tournament and go back to the Final Four. I have a Google Doc with seven of my friends (who all went to Wisconsin) and on it we picked every single game for the Badgers next year. Only one of us has the Badgers losing before the Final Four. Those are some pretty serious expectations, from a group of eight idiots that are notably pessimistic about everything. Bo Ryan is a good coach and he has a bunch of veterans on this team, so Wisconsin should be able to counter-balance all the outside noise with some strong-handed leadership. Hopefully the Badgers enjoy the ride, because who knows when they'll ever be this nationally relevant again.
Who to Watch For
Sam Dekker - Dekker is the most touted recruit the Badgers have signed since Brian Butch, and heading into his junior season he has the chance to be one of the greatest Badgers to put on a uniform for Bo Ryan. Dekker is the most talented player on the roster and had a monster summer filled with accolades from beat writers to LeBron James camp attendees. If he continues to improve his game he will be a first round NBA Draft pick, and possibly a lottery selection. Dekker's per 40 minute scoring average went down last year, but his offensive win shares went up. He found a way to help the team (mostly by rebounding and drawing defenders away from Kaminsky) even though he wasn't the primary option on offense. This year, he and Kaminsky should be 1a and 1b in the offensive pecking order, probably switching positions based on who has the hot hand. The success of Dekker this year, and his probable choice to declare for the NBA Draft, and where he gets drafted will set a number gears in motion. If he has a big year and gets drafted highly, Ryan can point to him as a success story with recruits. Big name recruits will consider Wisconsin a viable option to get to the next level and will choose to attend school there. Wash, rinse, repeat. But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. *rereads Dekker paragraph* Oops.
Duje Dukan - Allow me to put on my Jon Gruden hat for a moment: "Now here's a guy that I've been following since he was a freshman. He had size, pedigree (dad played in Europe for 15 years), and ability to shoot from the outside. He's from Croatia so I call him the Croat because he's niiiice." Now, confusing Borat jokes aside, Dukan has been a prototypical Bo Ryan player. He's tall, can shoot, and probably wasn't ready to play in the B1G his first two seasons on the team. Most of the time a player like Dukan would be starting for the Badgers here in his senior year, but as we've noted this year is somewhat of an exception around Madison. Instead, Dukan provides a matchup nightmare off the bench for UW. He's nearly seven feet tall and has a sweet shooting stroke. He has also looked more fearless (something you can definitely quantify) in going for rebounds during the Red/White Scrimmage and practice. If Dukan has developed a bit of a mean streak to go with his silky outside game, he'll be a major weapon off the bench.
Bronson Koenig - The backup point guard can sometimes suffer from the same disease as the backup quarterback. If the starter is struggling, it makes the backup look like John Stockton crossed with Chris Paul. Oftentimes this is just a case of "the grass is always greener on the other side," but in Koenig's case there is some truth to it. He is an excellent point guard that takes care of the ball and always makes the right pass. He even proved in the Final Four game against Kentucky that he can take the reigns in a big game (Jackson was in first half foul trouble) and score a little too. With an experienced and talented point guard ahead of him, Koenig won't start, but he will be invaluable to the Badgers this year. Like how you can never have too much ice at a party, you can also never have too many quality point guards on your college basketball roster.
It has been a long offseason since the Badgers lost to Kentucky in the Final Four. While sure there were things to keep me occupied, like football season, the World Series, getting married...hmm, that maybe should have been first. Anyways, the offseason seemed especially interminable this year due to the obscene amount of hype surrounding the Badgers 2014-15 team.
I think the Badgers are going to be an extremely good basketball team this year. They have a tough schedule (Battle for Atlantis, Duke, Marquette, conference play) and will be battle tested come March. Wisconsin has a distinct chance of winning their first basketball National Title since 1941, and because of that it's going to be an awesome year to watch them play basketball. Season starts on Friday against Northern Kentucky, where they will "raise" a "banner" for last year's Final Four team. After that, it's time for the Badgers to put last year in the past for good and focus on the task at hand.
The Badgers will win the B1G regular season championship, lose in their first game of the B1G Tournament and then go on to their second consecutive Final Four. They have all the pieces to win a championship, will they put them all together this year?
Projected regular season record: 27-4 (14-4)
Other season previews that you may find interesting/worthwhile: Over at the mothership, Ricky O'Donnell breaks down the Badgers and right here at BT Powerhouse Thomas Beindit previews every B1G team in his mammoth and beautiful season preview. Bucky's 5th Quarter is your stop for all Badgers all the time as well.