The ‘2015-16 BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2015-16 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers each team.
The Wisconsin Badgers are almost undeniably coming off the best run in program history. The Badgers have made the Final Four for two years in a row, won the Big Ten regular season title and Big Ten Tournament last year, had back-to-back 30 win seasons for just the second time in school history, and have made the NCAA Tournament for an impressive 17 straight seasons. Very, very few programs could even try and compare to that run.
Naturally, fans are hoping for that remarkable success to continue into this season. The stakes have also been raised as head coach Bo Ryan has openly discussed retiring from the program. He is undeniably the program's most successful head coach with an incredible 482-357 (.741) record with the Badgers. The program will certainly be hoping that if this is indeed Ryan's final year in Madison, that he can go out on a high note.
Unfortunately, maintaining that success could be harder this season than it has been in quite some time. The program has seen a massive offseason attrition, including the exits of star players like Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. Even if Ryan has proven his coaching ability plenty of times over in Madison, finding replacements for the National Player of the Year and a first round NBA Draft pick (among others) will not be easy.
Of course, these departures don't mean that all is lost for the Badgers. With the return of players like Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, and Zak Showalter, there are some proven options available. Along with this, Wisconsin brings in a pretty talented recruiting class that has the potential to make an early impact. Some players will have to emerge if Wisconsin will be successful this year, but the cupboard certainly isn't bare.
Overall, this is a Wisconsin team with plenty of question marks, but also a roster with some legitimate star players and talented depth options. Although the roster should be good enough to keep the Badgers relevant this season, seeing how the newcomers emerge will determine this season's fate for Wisconsin.
With that, let's take a look at the Badgers.
BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast
Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Wisconsin Badgers, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Badgers featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Drew Hamm of Bucky's Fifth Quarter breaking down Wisconsin's roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.
1. 2014-15 Season Performance
- Record: 36-4 (16-2)
- KenPom Team Rating: #3
- RPI Rating: #4
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament
Last season was a brilliant one for Wisconsin from start to finish. The Badgers had extremely high preseason expectations, but were able to put together great performances in non-conference play, in the Big Ten, and in the postseason. Though the team would fall short against Duke in the national championship game, it was still an extremely impressive performance and one of the program's best seasons ever.
It's hard to pick one area to highlight on Wisconsin's team, but the offense does merit some discussion. The Badgers came in at No. 1 nationally in offensive efficiency last season and in fact, it was actually the most efficient offense in the history of KenPom's ratings. Though it's hard to guarantee that Wisconsin had the best offense in college basketball since the 2001-02 season, Wisconsin's offense should certainly be in the discussion, which says a lot.
In my 2014-15 Big Ten Recapitulation Series, this is what I wrote about Wisconsin:
The Badgers were largely carried by their elite offensive production, solid defense, and the incredible play of Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. With these two in the fold and several other key contributors, it allowed Wisconsin to compete inside with any team in the country, including an absolutely loaded Kentucky team that would send a massive hunk of its roster to the 2015 NBA Draft.
Of course, the defense could have been better and the loss to Duke was particularly rough, but it certainly doesn't come close to overriding such an incredible season in Madison. Along with this, even if Wisconsin had a bit of a soft Big Ten schedule, a 16-2 conference record with wins over a bunch of NCAA Tournament teams should override those concerns. There's no doubt Wisconsin was not a perfect team, but it's hard to view criticisms on last year's Badgers without simply viewing it as nitpicking.
Wisconsin was an absolutely elite team in 2014-15 and though the Badgers were unable to get the banner the program so desperately desired, looking at the team as anything other than a resounding success is ridiculous. This was a unit that went 36-4 overall, 16-2 in the Big Ten, and beat a plethora of really good teams. It was an incredible ride for the program and fans and one that likely won't be repeated again for quite some time.
When discussing last year's Wisconsin team, it's hard not to simply make the discussion one that revolves around terms like elite, great, and spectacular. One can certainly debate how great Wisconsin was last year, but the truth of the matter is that it's more about nitpicking than actual issues. By just about any measure, Wisconsin was one of the nation's best teams.
Highlights of the season included a 12-1 record in non-conference play, a Big Ten regular season title, a Big Ten Tournament title, and a trip to the national championship game. Low points of the season were the two losses to Duke and regular season losses to Maryland and Rutgers.
Individual statistical leaders were Josh Gasser, Nigel Hayes, and Frank Kaminsky. Gasser led the team in minutes. Hayes led the team in steals. Kaminsky led the team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, total win shares, and usage.
2. Offseason Exits
Since the start of last season, Wisconsin has lost a total of five players for various reasons. These players were Sam Dekker, Duje Dukan, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson, and Frank Kaminsky. Five of these players graduated and one declared early for the NBA Draft. Of these losses, Dekker and Kaminsky should pose the biggest challenges to the Badgers heading into next season.
There is absolutely no debating that Kaminsky was Wisconsin's best player. He led the team in almost all the major statistical categories and was named both Big Ten and National Player of the Year last season. Kaminsky was a big man that could score inside, score outside, get teammates involved, and even defend. When all of that is added together, it's pretty easy to see his impact.
Though Dekker didn't contribute quite as much as Kaminsky, he was also a huge part of Wisconsin's team. He was a player that could create his own shot offensively, get inside, and shoot decently from outside. He also provided a boost to the lineup as he played upfront, but could create like a small forward on the offensive end of the floor. Finding a player as dynamic and effective as Dekker will not be an easy task.
Along with Dekker and Kaminsky, the Badgers are also losing three other players this offseason. Most will focus on the losses of Dekker and Kaminsky - and rightfully so, as they were fantastic - but it's telling that the Badgers are also losing two other starter quality players and one of the team's most utilized backups. Those three losses would be pretty significant by themselves, but they come in addition to Wisconsin losing arguably its best two players.
The biggest departure of these three has to be Josh Gasser. He led the team in minutes last season, was a really solid outside shooter, and pretty efficient overall. Traevon Jackson isn't as much of a hit, as he only saw limited playing time later in the year, but he still played a good hunk of minutes and was a top option early on. Finally, though Duje Dukan was never an outstanding player for the team, he was a solid player that was Wisconsin's primary bench option on the wing. That's nothing to simply overlook.
Admittedly, these departures are pretty massive for the Badgers. This isn't the case of one or even two top players leaving the roster. Wisconsin is losing its best player, two other starters, and two of the team's top bench options late in the season. Whether this was a great team or not last season, that would be a pretty telling statement.
There is certainly still hope and the return of some of the team's top contributors like Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig can lessen the impact of these losses. However, characterizing these departures as anything other than significant is just wrong. Kaminsky alone arguably could have been the best Wisconsin player of all-time. That's not something that's just going to show up on a yearly basis, regardless of coaching.
3. New Additions
This season, the Badgers will be adding five new recruits. These recruits are Alex Illikainen, Khalil Iverson, Brevin Pritzl, Charlie Thomas, and Andy Van Vliet. Pritzl is rated as a four-star prospect, Illikainen, Iverson, and Thomas are rated as three-star prospects, and Van Vliet is unranked according to 247Sports. Pritzl is a shooting guard, Iverson is a small forward, and Illikainen, Thomas, and Van Vliet are labeled as power forwards.
Pritzl is likely the prospect who is receiving the most attention in Wisconsin's incoming recruiting class. He not only has the highest ratings according to the scouting services, but is considered to be a quality ball handler with a solid shot. Unfortunately, a preseason injury to his foot could limit him this season. However, when all is said and done, many believe that he is the newcomer with the most long-term potential.
Another prospect that fans will want to watch this season is Iverson. He is far from a fully developed player and will have to work on his game, but his diversity on the court could be a big boost to what should be a rather thin and inexperienced Badger team. He can play multiple positions and should be able to move around to where he would be most effective. With Nigel Hayes on the wing, this could be a decent start for Wisconsin.
The remaining three prospects all have potential and will likely at least get a shot to contribute. With Wisconsin's thin depth chart, it's hard not to think virtually everyone will get a fair shake to start. The question will just be about who can contribute the most early on. However, with some of the questions upfront, expect at least one or two of these three recruits to see some serious time.
Wisconsin's incoming recruiting class looks to be a good group that will solidify the depth chart for at least the next few seasons. There probably isn't an elite prospect in the class, but there are plenty of really good players who will contribute significantly during their careers. Though it's tough to see this group completely being able to meet Wisconsin's depth needs this season, this should be a really good group long-term.
4. Team Strengths
Admittedly, it is pretty tough to put a thumb on where the strengths of this Wisconsin team will be this season. After all, with so many offseason departures and newcomers, this team will look almost entirely different than last year's team. The flow of games will be different, the team's strategy for crunch time will be different, and the best players will certainly be different. However, given where the team was last year and some of the returns, this still looks to be a good offensive team built off avoiding turnovers.
As mentioned earlier, the Badgers were very good offensively last season. The team came in as the No. 1 offensive in the KenPom era, which dates back to the 2001-02 season. Even if one doesn't buy that this was the "best" offensive team during that time period, it's hard not to think last year's Wisconsin team was at least in the discussion.
With the return of key players like Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, and Zak Showalter, at least some of that elite offensive performance should roll over into this season. There's no doubt that some regression will likely be felt, but it's hard to imagine the Badgers not at least being decent offensively. This isn't like dropping off from a pretty good offense or even a great offensive team. This was one of the best of all-time.
An area that should help the team's offensive performance is in avoiding turnovers. The Badgers have traditionally been very good at avoiding turnovers under Bo Ryan and with the return of several key contributors in the backcourt, it seems likely that this should still be an area of strength.
There's no doubt that last year's great turnover numbers were a team effort. The Badgers came in at No. 1 nationally in offensive turnover rate and frankly, did a great job at holding onto the ball. A team doesn't get to the top without every area on the roster assisting. However, that doesn't mean with some offseason losses that this area will suddenly collapse. Hayes and Koenig are going to get most of the possessions and should be able to hold up solid numbers.
Gauging Wisconsin's strengths is not an easy task given all the transition on the roster, but with some key returns from an extremely talented team last season, there are some reasons for optimism. Look for the Badgers to still be a good offensive team that holds onto the ball at least.
5. Team Weaknesses
Similar to the strengths section, this is not an easy area to gauge. This team is losing star players, starters, and bench options from last season. As such, this Badgers team is simply going to look different. Of course, there are still a few red flags for Wisconsin heading into this season. Notably, the team's defensive performance in pressuring the ball and blocking shots along with rebounding appear to be issues for this year.
Wisconsin was good defensive team last year, but was a long way from being great. The Badgers came in at No. 54 nationally in defensive efficiency, which is perfectly respectable, but a long way from its incredible offensive numbers. Though this wasn't a massive concern last year, it will be a concern heading into this year.
Perhaps the area where the Badgers struggled the most was in pressuring the ball defensively. Wisconsin came in at just No. 325 in steal rate and No. 334 in defensive turnover rate. Regardless of who or why this issue was prevalent for the Badgers, there isn't much debating that it was not a great area for Wisconsin.
Now, with several departures, this area gets a bit more concerning. The Badgers are losing three of its top four leaders in steal rate and four of its top five in overall steals. Wisconsin's newcomers could certainly assist in lessening these losses, but for a team that already wasn't great at pressuring the ball, to lose its best players in the area is concerning.
Another defensive area that looks to be of major concern is the team's interior defense. With the loss of players like Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, there are going to be a lot of question marks upfront. Plus, considering that the Badgers finished at just No. 238 nationally in block rate, this looks like a red flag.
Similar to the issues with pressuring the ball on defense, the Badgers are losing the team's top contributors in an area that was already weak. The team came in at just No. 238 nationally in block rate and is now losing three of its top four players in block rate and in total blocks. The newcomers will have to contribute here if Wisconsin is going to be decent in interior defense.
The boards also look like a concern. The Badgers were actually No. 4 nationally in defensive rebounding rate last season, but with so many losses upfront, this looks like another red flag. Overall, Wisconsin is losing three of its top four players in defensive rebound rate and four of its top five players in defensive rebounds. Hayes is certainly a big return here, but this could be an area of significant regression.
Wisconsin's newcomers could certainly shake things up, but as of now, the defensive end of the floor and the team's rebounding look like concerns. Though some of these red flags could be answered early and some major returns like Nigel Hayes will help, it's hard to see the Badgers being great in any of these areas.
6. Top Player
Heading into last season, the debate about who would be Wisconsin's top player was pretty simple. Outside of something extremely unusual occurring, Wisconsin's best player would either be Sam Dekker or Frank Kaminsky. Eventually, those assumptions proved to be pretty accurate. Kaminsky was easily the team's best player and Dekker did enough to get himself drafted in the 1st Round of the 2015 NBA Draft. Now, with both players gone, the pressure will fall on Nigel Hayes. Last year, Hayes put up great numbers and came in at #3 in the BTPowerhouse preseason Big Ten player rankings heading into this season.
There isn't much debate that Hayes lagged far behind Kaminsky last season, but otherwise, Hayes' numbers held up pretty well to everybody else on Wisconsin's team. In fact, Hayes landed on KenPom's top five Big Ten players and his efficiency rate was just two points lower than Sam Dekker's rating. As such, by just about any measure, he is Wisconsin's top returning player.
Outside of Hayes, the top returner for the Badgers will likely be Bronson Koenig. He played very well at the point last year and continued to develop over the course of the season. Additionally, Zak Showalter had limited minutes, but was effective when he did get on the floor. Some of the newcomers also have the potential to emerge this season including Khalil Iverson and Brevin Pritzl. Though neither is a lock to contribute significantly, it wouldn't be surprising to see either emerge.
There are plenty of players in position to have great seasons for the Badgers, but when all is considered, Hayes has to be considered the frontrunner. He should be in serious contention for All-Big Ten this year and even has a shot to give Wisconsin its second straight Big Ten Player of the Year.
7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/4 - UW-River Falls (Exhibition)
- 11/13 - Western Illinois
- 11/15 - Siena
- 11/17 - North Dakota
- 11/20 - Georgetown (New York, New York)
- 11/22 - Duke/VCU (New York, New York)
- 11/25 - Prairie View A&M
- 11/29 - at Oklahoma
- 12/2 - at Syracuse
- 12/5 - Temple
- 12/9 - Milwaukee
- 12/12 - Marquette
- 12/15 - Texas A&M - Corpus Christi
- 12/23 - Green Bay
- 12/29 - Purdue
- 1/2 - Rutgers
- 1/5 - at Indiana
- 1/9 - Maryland
- 1/12 - at Northwestern
- 1/17 - Michigan State
- 1/21 - at Penn State
- 1/26 - Indiana
- 1/31 - at Illinois
- 2/4 - Ohio State
- 2/10 - Nebraska
- 2/13 - at Maryland
- 2/18 - at Michigan State
- 2/21 - Illinois
- 2/24 - at Iowa
- 2/28 - Michigan
- 3/2 - at Minnesota
- 3/(5/6) - at Purdue
Wisconsin has set itself up with an extremely difficult non-conference schedule. Despite a potential drop-off this season, the Badgers have been set up to have several games against potential national championship contenders and even more against top 25 teams. Things are going to be tough.
The significant games on this non-conference schedule include the road games at Oklahoma and Syracuse, the neutral site games against Georgetown and either Duke or VCU, and the home games against Marquette and Temple. Wisconsin should have a decent shot to get a few wins, but getting through that anywhere close to unscathed is going to be extremely difficult.
To start, Duke and Oklahoma are both expected to be teams in or near the top 10. In fact, the Blue Devils are ranked No. 1 nationally by KenPom in the site's preseason rankings. Syracuse is expected to be weaker than those two teams, but the Orange are still expected to be around the top 25 and will face Wisconsin at home. The Badgers will get Georgetown on a neutral court, but the Hoyas are another fringe top 25 team. Finally, Marquette and Temple should be wins, but each is good enough to beat the Badgers if things go right, adding two more potential losses.
Realistically speaking, it's really tough to see Wisconsin coming out of non-conference play with fewer than three losses. Maybe that sounds pessimistic, but the Badgers are going to be underdogs in at least two games and likely three, if Wisconsin faces Duke in the bracket. Add in a few more tricky games and this looks like a non-conference record that will give Wisconsin somewhere between an 8-4 and 10-2 record.
Of course, Big Ten play will offer Wisconsin no reprieve from the team's difficult schedule. In total, Wisconsin will play 15 of its 18 conference games against top 100 KenPom teams and half of the games against top 25 KenPom teams. Virtually every game will be dangerous and half the games are going to be against good teams.
Still, there is hope for the Badgers. To start, Wisconsin does get games against Nebraska, Penn State, and Rutgers. Along with this, a double-play against Illinois, a home game against Ohio State, and road games at Minnesota and Northwestern are certainly winnable. That's a potential eight wins before even getting to the top teams. After all, the Badgers do have five additional home conference games outside of those manageable eight games.
As mentioned, this is a difficult slate and it's going to take some major wins from Wisconsin to put together a good conference record. However, there is a decent floor here for success. Considering the Badgers' talent and quality play at home, this looks like a .500 to 12-6 conference record.
Overall, Wisconsin will have its work cut out for it this year. The non-conference schedule features several very good teams and the Big Ten schedule will be incredibly difficult. There are wins on the table for the taking, but how many of those difficult games that the Badgers can grab is a whole different issue.
8. Projected Startling Lineup
PG: Bronson Koenig (Jr.) - 95%
SG: Zak Showalter (Rs. Jr.) - 70%
SF: Ethan Happ (Rs. Fr.) - 55%
PF: Nigel Hayes (Jr.) - 95%
C: Vitto Brown - (Jr.) - 80%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
The backcourt doesn't look like it will have many options this season, but the ones it does have at set to be some of the better players on the roster. At point guard, Bronson Koenig had a remarkable 2014-15 season and has earned his starting role coming into this year. There isn't much of a debate that Koenig will have to step up and be one of the team's better players, if the Badgers are going to have success.
Alongside Koenig, look for Zak Showalter to grab the starting nod. Showalter was decent off the bench last year, but will have to expand his role this season. One of the biggest concerns will be his shooting ability, which has never really looked great during Showalter's career. In fact, he has shot just 16.7 percent from three point range during his career. After all, he's trying to replace Josh Gasser, who was a really nice shooter.
On the wing, the battle should be pretty predictable. Nigel Hayes should be the best player on the team and one of the best in the conference. As such, Hayes is going to start. The only question will be if Hayes moves down to power forward. If that happens, it will be because some of the players like Khalil Iverson emerge.
At power forward, the position is going to be much harder to figure out. There are plenty of options on the roster, but none jump out as particularly appealing on paper. Overall, Ethap Happ probably has the best combination of experience and talent for the position. Players like Charlie Thomas or Andy Van Vliet could emerge, but this appears to be Happ's position to lose early on.
Finally, at center, there probably won't be much of a battle. Brown has shown a decent ability to rebound and may be a concern offensively, but there just isn't a lot to choose from upfront. Though some of the players at power forward like Happ can move over if needed, this looks like it will be Brown's position. This team lacks proven depth upfront and as such, there are going to be plenty of questions at center this season.
The starting lineup for Wisconsin is such a mixed bag of emotions. There are two starters that could be in contention for All-Big Ten team status and plenty of talented options around them, but outside of the two starters, no player is a known commodity. Even Showalter, who played a decent hunk last year is a bit of a question mark. After all, he didn't even play 20 percent of the team's minutes last season. In a year or two, these players could be really good for the Badgers, but whether they can be this year is the question.
Overall, this should be a good lineup for the Badgers this season. With several potential All-Big Ten candidates and at least a handful of potential options, there is plenty to work with for Bo Ryan. Having said that, with so many questions in the frontcourt and with the team's depth, there is a lot of uncertainty.
9. Team Perspective From Drew Hamm of Bucky's Fifth Quarter
"Death. Taxes. Bo Ryan. This is something that a certain someone who has blocked me on Twitter says after every Wisconsin men's basketball victory. It is as trite as it is telling that head coach Bo Ryan is so omnipresent that he is compared to both death and taxes. The only two things in this world of which you can be sure. Since Bo Ryan took over in Madison the Badgers have never finished below fourth in the Big Ten. You may not know this, but the Big Ten has been a good basketball conference in that same time period. It is an impressive feat to be sure and until proven otherwise, Ryan's Badgers should be pencilled in one of the top four slots in the conference.
Death. Taxes. Losing most of your rotation to the NBA. This is not something anyone has ever tweeted about the Badgers, but it is the predicament that Wisconsin finds itself in this year. National player of the year Frank Kaminsky is in Buzz City, do everything swingman Sam Dekker is in Houston, Captain America Josh Gasser is defending our nation's interests by taking charges in Germany, sixth-man extraordinaire and all-around infuriating basketball enigma Duje Dukan is in Sacramento, and Traevon Jackson is trying to catch on with an NBA team and follow in his dad's footsteps. With all that talent it is no surprise (that's not true) that Wisconsin went to back-to-back Final Fours, but now that the cupboard is bare how will Bo Ryan react?
Death. Taxes. Lots of minutes for youngsters. This is the mantra that the Badgers will be abiding by this year. Stud juniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are entrenched at forward and point guard respectively and will be tasked with shepherding the young Badgers through the rigors of a major college basketball schedule. Big man Vitto Brown returns as well to eat up minutes and provide five fouls (I kid, I kid...but a lot of truth is said in jest) and spark plug on bath salts Zak Showalter will also log a lot of minutes this year.
The Badgers have one senior on this year's team (Jordan Smith, who you've never heard of) and seven (!!!) freshman (two of the redshirt variety). There are going to be a number of players who have only been able to see R-rated movies by themselves for under two years seeing the court this year. Ethan Happ, the redshirt freshman power forward, is everyone's pick to have a monster year and you won't hear me disagree. All reports on him come back breathless about his potential and his rebounding ability and how he dominated Kaminsky at times in practice last year and...well, you get the point. If he doesn't take a redshirt year, Khalil Iverson is going to turn a lot of heads in the B1G. He's an athletic swingman in the mold of Badger great Alando Tucker and he should bring a lot of excitement to the gym, especially in transition where he has looked dangerous.
Death. Taxes. Incorrect preseason selections. This is MY mantra, and one I refuse to change. The Badgers are clearly in a transitional period, hell we didn't even talk about Bo Ryan potentially retiring at the end of this year, and in a tough time too. The Big Ten is stacked this year and unless Bo Ryan is actually a wizard there is no chance the Badgers defend their conference crowns. However, until proven otherwise I find it unwise to pick the Badgers below fourth in the conference and that is where they'll end up this season. Fourth place never felt so good." - Drew Hamm.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Wisconsin is entering a particularly interesting year for the program. After coming off one of the most successful seasons in Wisconsin history, many in the media and the fanbase are expecting some regression. However, fans are hopeful that the program can put together a successul year, especially considering that it could be head coach Bo Ryan's last year with the program.
With the return of Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, there does appear to be a really good core on the roster. Along with this, when one adds in some returning bench players like Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter and a talented incoming recruiting class, the Badgers do have some depth and talent. There's no doubt that some of these players will have to step up, but at least there are some pieces to work with this season.
Unfortunately, that may be too tall of a task for the Badgers this year. After all, the group that departed this offseason was one of the most successful in Wisconsin history. Players like Frank Kaminsky don't come around on a yearly basis. Even if there are options, replacing some of the best players ever to wear a Wisconsin jersey is not an easy task, especially when those losses are added to several other key pieces departing.
Of course, if the Badgers can find a few newcomers who are ready to contribute immediately and some of the team's bench players from last season are ready, this could be a really good team. Realistically though, there just doesn't seem to be enough depth and experience outside of Hayes and Koenig to see this as a top end Big Ten team.