Wisconsin's 2013-14 season was an unbridled success. Entering the year, the Badgers had the traditional top-4 in the Big Ten expectations, but no one anticipated them reaching the Final Four. Frank Kaminsky transformed from a fringe rotation player last year to one of the biggest names in college basketball, and Bo Ryan finally shook off the stigma of never making a Final Four.
As we all know, they lost to Kentucky in the national semifinals, ending their magical run. But don't fear, Badger fans. This team will be reaaaally good next year. How exactly? Well, I'm glad you asked.
The only difference between this year's team and next year's team will be the absence of graduating senior Ben Brust. That's the biggest dilemma that Wisconsin will need to face next year: replacing Brust's production. He's the all-time leading three-point shooter in the history of the school, so he could put the ball in the ol' peach basket as good as anybody. While his outside shooting was his calling card, he was always more than just a shooter. And for good reason too, because there were stretches this year where he was a hindrance to the team because his outside shots weren't falling. If Brust wasn't hitting threes, Wisconsin's offense halted. He did always make up for it with excellent rebounding for his 6'1" frame and strong perimeter defense. But his ability to knock down big shots in big spots will be missed next year.
Well, what will Wisconsin have in the backcourt for next year? They'll have an awesome balance between the poise and maturity of Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser and the youthful potential of Bronson Koeing.
I am so excited for Traevon Jackson's senior campaign. He's improved leaps and bounds since he was thrusted the reigns of the point guard position two years ago, and should be rearing to go come 2014-15. You could tell that he gained a deeper understanding of his skills and limits as a player as the tournament progressed.
Looking at his stat lines, the numbers don't pop out at you. Nor should they. Traevon Jackson is not the type of player you want to be filling up your stat sheet. All he needs to do is to keep the turnovers low (he had a total of 11 turnovers in 149 minutes of tournament play) and keep their offense flowing. That means he should make the easy passes and let the plays come to him. If the play they ran doesn't work out, Trae will close out the shot clock with either a drive to the basket or a strong pull-up jumper.
It will be much easier for Trae to find positives from last season going into next year. His confidence should be at an all-time high, and a confident Trae usually translates into Badger victories.
Josh Gasser will (most likely) slide down to the 2-guard position for next season, which should work out just fine. Now, he won't be guarding 6'6" or 6'7" wings or power forwards; he can focus on guarding players that are more his size. That should make Wisconsin's usually strong perimeter defense even stronger (although him not contesting Aaron Harrison's winning 3-pointer will haunt my dreams forever).
Offensively, Gasser won't be looked upon for much - just finding the open man and knocking down open shots. Although I'm not sure what to make about his performances against Kentucky, Arizona, and Baylor. He shot a total of 2-14 in all three of those games, and didn't make a single three. But in all those games, he played 40 minutes, 38 minutes, and 34 minutes respectively. That proves that even if he's not scoring, he's very valuable to Wisconsin's success as a whole.
And then there's Bronson Koenig. Wisconsin's little secret burst onto the national spotlight against Kentucky with an 11 point performance. There's a lot of talk about Koenig "replacing" Brust, but frankly, I don't see that as his role next year. Brust succeeded because he didn't need the ball in his hands to be effective. For better or for worse, Koenig needs to be the primary ball-handler for his talents to properly be on display. That's why he was so good against Kentucky.
He'll need to learn how to play off the ball next year, but I expect to see his minutes increase regardless as the first guy off the bench. With Koenig as the 6th man, Wisconsin can use a smaller lineup against quicker teams and lock up their perimeter defense. Next season will be huge for Koenig's development. If he learn how to contribute offensively without the ball, that will do wonders for him during his junior year when he's holding the reigns of the Wisconsin offense. He has the potential to be the next great Badger point guard, and next year could be the chance for him to prove it.
Wisconsin will graduate Evan Anderson and Zach Bohannon, so they aren't losing any major contributors (except for dancing). That leaves a star-studded frontcourt of Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, and Frank Kaminsky.
Last year, everyone assumed that this was "Dekker's team." By that, everyone thought that Dekker would be the first option offensively, and be looked upon for the last shot of every close game. Eventually, it became clear that Dekker is not that type of player. But I'm excited to see how the lack of expectations will affect his game. It's fair to say Sam Dekker's draft stock has fallen since last offseason. And that's totally ok. Wisconsin doesn't need him to be a good pro prospect - they just need him to be the best Sam Dekker.
What is the best Sam Dekker? That's the guy who flies in for rebounds with reckless abandon and uses his athletic potential to blow by slower defenders and knocks down open threes when it counts. That'll be the Dekker I expect to see for next season. Like Trae, Dekker now has a better understanding of his limitations as a player. Expect that maturity to translate into a great season for Dekker.
I fear that Nigel Hayes will develop a bad case of Sam Dekker's Disease. Two years ago, Dekker was the hot, young 6th man that could do no wrong in the eyes of the fans. Sound like anyone from last year? It's very likely that Hayes won't be as effective of a player in a larger (potentially starting) role. He had a tough tournament, and played only 16 minutes against Arizona and 7 minutes against Kentucky. Both of their swarming defenses never let him get comfortable, and let him knock down those mid-range jumpers that he loves so much. He also periodically struggled with fouls in the tournament, which I'd like to see him change.
For Nigel's sake, don't make the expectations on his season next year too great. That will do him no favors as a player, as he develops a more well-rounded offensive game, and will do you no favors as a fan, because you won't be satisfied with what may seem to be a plateau of his potential. He'll be just fine. But I don't see him progressing as linearly as some may hope.
Next year's team will belong to Frank Kaminsky. He was the star of Wisconsin's tournament run, and you best believe other teams will take notice. I wrote about this in more detail here, but Kaminsky will need to adapt if he wants to fully utilize his potential as a player. Luckily for Badger fans, he can absolutely do that. Physically, he's up there with the best of the Big Ten. And mentally, his performance in the tournament should send his confidence through the roof. Now he knows how much of an offensive threat he can be. That could be very dangerous for opposing centers during next year's season.
Wisconsin is falling into a pretty sweet deal for next year. In a conference where everyone is losing players, Wisconsin will keep 4 of their starting 5. Michigan is losing Glenn Robinson III, Jon Horford, and potentially Nik Stauskas. Ohio State is losing Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. Michigan State is losing Adreian Payne, Keith Appling, and Gary Harris. Indiana is a mess.
That's not to say the Big Ten will be a joke next year. Minnesota just won the NIT, Iowa only will lose Roy Devyn Marble, and Nebraska is bringing back basically their whole team. And if you add Maryland into that equation, Wisconsin will be tested in the Big Ten.
But I expect Wisconsin to be the heavy preseason favorite to win the Big Ten. Those expectations could come back to bite them, but their Final Four run taught this team how to win. I'm excited to see their unique mix of experience and youth for next year in what could be another special season of Badger basketball.