On Friday night, I sent my brother a text that said "Oh man, it's gonna be a really long season." On Sunday night, a different text read "Where the hell was this team two nights ago?" Up to this point, this is the state of the Wisconsin Badgers. A team clearly with a ton of potential, shooting and spacing, Bo Ryan has an undeniably talented team. But can this team reach its ceiling and become one of the best teams in the Big Ten or falter to a middle of the pack team instead? After one week, here's what we know:
1. Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes are the main guys on this team
So far, both have played like the two best players for this Badger team. Koenig has been phenomenal, averaging 20 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3 assists in the first two games. He's attempted a team high 29 shots, but has been ultra efficient in these attempts, shooting 52%. I love Koenig's style of play, as the junior never passes up a shot he doesn't like but has been great at getting his team involved. On Sunday, Koenig drew three Siena defenders and dropped a gorgeous bounce pass to Khalil Iverson for an easy layup. Koenig's unwavering confidence and "brass balls" style of play will be key for the Badgers all season.
While Koenig is the flashier player, Hayes continues to be a consistently, solid player. In the first game against Western Illinois, however, Hayes felt the pressure to force his shot without having Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and the rest of the departed Badgers from last season. He was thrust into playing all 40 minutes, finishing with 17 points on 4-14 shooting. The good news? Hayes also had 4 assists, 4 rebounds and shot 11 free throws. His game continues to expand, and he remains one of the most versatile offensive threats in the Big Ten. In Sunday's game, Hayes settled in, finishing with 14 points on 5-6 shooting, 4 assists and 3 rebounds in an incredibly efficient 21 minutes. Hayes will have to play 30+ minutes the majority of the games, but if he can continue to come close to this level of efficiency, the Badgers could be scary good.
2. Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown must continue to be solid role players
Midway through Sunday night's game, it felt like déjà vu. Koenig would bring the ball up the floor, the Badgers would make a few passes, and the possession would end in a long jumper from Vitto Brown. More often than not, these shots would drop. Brown has clearly made an effort in the offseason to work on his jump shot to become a more important part of the offense, and Sunday night showed a major improvement to his low numbers last season. Brown remains a key starter for this Badger team seriously lacking depth, and if he can hover around double-digit points all season (16 and 11 so far), he becomes an extremely important piece.
While Showalter's numbers aren't nearly as good, he provides explosiveness and athleticism to the shooting guard position that the Badgers haven't had in quite some time. His averages of 8 points and 5 rebounds would be production that Bo Ryan would be content with all season, as his rebounding and defensive toughness make the Badgers a tougher team. Showalter doesn't have much depth behind him, as Riley Dearring (2 minutes against Siena) hasn't really played at all. Showalter, like Hayes, played 40 minutes against Western Illinois, and will likely have to play 30+ minutes a game given the lack of depth. He doesn't need to put up gaudy numbers, but has to remain productive and smart given his major time on the floor.
3. Ethan Happ and Khalil Iverson look like really nice complimentary pieces
At the small forward position, Bo Ryan has two freshmen that have both shown flashes of brilliance so far. Happ, a redshirt freshman who stands at 6'9, has shown his ability to score from both outside and inside, displaying a few post moves against Siena. His rebounding numbers (5 per game) is an added bonus at the small forward position, but Happ has been in foul trouble both games (3 against Western Illinois in 19 minutes, 4 against Siena in 18 minutes). It's slightly alarming that Happ has committed fouls at such a high rate against weaker competition, but hopefully he'll settle in as the season goes on.
While Happ is the starter, his trusty backup is Khalil Iverson. Iverson and Happ are both averaging 6 points and 5 rebounds, and Iverson has actually played slightly more minutes than Happ at this point of the season. Iverson is smaller at 6'5", but his athleticism and defensive prowess has been a welcome sign in Madison so far. He had 3 blocks and 3 steals against Western Illinois, and just seems to be extremely active on the floor. Against teams with smaller forwards, Iverson's length and defensive versatility will be important. Look for him to continue to improve as the season goes on and become one of the fan favorites in Madison this season.
4. Charlie Thomas has extreme upside, but still looks a little lost
The third freshman in Bo Ryan's rotation, Thomas has the ability to be a very talented post player in the Big Ten. He had 7 points and 4 rebounds against Siena, but appeared to force his shot against Western Illinois, finishing 2-7 with 4 points and 5 rebounds against Western Illinois. At 6'8", 245, Thomas clearly has a Big Ten-ready body, but he appears to try to overpower his opponent in the paint too many times instead of letting the offense come to him. The 5 rebounds in both games is a good sign, but he's only averaged 15 minutes per game playing behind Hayes and Brown. I don't expect him to average more than 20 minutes per game, but his rebounding and toughness should continue to earn him these minutes.
5. It's tough to make anything of Alex Illikainen and Jordan Hill
Hill barely saw the court against Western Illinois and finished 0-2 with a turnover against Siena in 12 minutes. Illikainen didn't play against Western Illinois and played mostly garbage time minutes against Western Illinois, as 4 of his 6 points and the majority of his minutes came with the Badgers already up 30. For a team desperately lacking depth, it's slightly alarming that Bo hasn't really given these guys a chance to play meaningful minutes yet. Maybe Illikainen, Hill and Dearring just aren't ready yet and Ryan will stick to his short bench.
6. Andy Van Vliet's decision would be a major boost to the Badgers
Anyone who follows college basketball is well aware of the NCAA ruling Van Vliet ineligible for this first couple games of the season. Van Vliet, a 6'11" freshman, saw his grades drop and had to repeat his junior year. As a result, the NCAA is investigating whether Van Vliet is eligible to play this season. He is the only player on the roster taller than 6'9, and using Brown, Thomas and Hayes at center isn't a viable option long-term. As skilled as these players are, they simply can't match up with some of the better centers in the Big Ten. Badger fans should know Tuesday whether Van Vliet can play.
If you're a Badger fan, you've endured the highs and lows with this team, and it's only been two games. After game one, the team looked more like an NIT team, and after blowing out Siena, some could argue they looked top-15 good. Realistically, this is a team that should hover around the top-25 all season given their talent but lack of depth. If Hayes and Koenig can carry this team, and Happ, Iverson, Showalter and Brown can play the majority of the minutes with major production, this team could be really good. Adding Van Vliet just gives the Badgers another option in the middle, but they should be in pretty good shape to make the NCAA Tournament even without him.