It’s a time of transition for the Wisconsin basketball program. Coming off of an incredibly successful campaign that ended with a heartbreaking loss to Duke in the national title game, the Badgers enter what coach Bo Ryan says is his last season. And with the loss of standouts Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Josh Gasser among others, the Badgers will need to rely on some new faces in 2015-16.
Still, Wisconsin never has been a program to routinely throw freshmen right into the fire. Ryan believes in developing players and leaning on his veterans, but with no seniors on this year’s roster, he may have to adapt his approach slightly. The Badgers have four new recruits as well as three open starting spots and plenty of available minutes. Let’s take a look at which newcomer has the best chance to get on the court right away.
While junior Bronson Koenig has the point guard spot locked up, it’s still up in the air on who will start alongside him in the backcourt. Enter Pritzl, the Badgers top rated recruit and one of the best high school shooters in the nation last season. At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Pritzl doesn’t have great size, but brings good athleticism and ball-handling skills that compliment his outside shooting. Although the Wisconsin native could potentially start, Ryan will likely go with junior Zak Showalter at first as he eases Pritzl into the lineup. Still, Pritzl has more offensive talent than the gritty Showalter, and could easily end up splitting minutes with him as the season goes along.
A prospect out of Minnesota, the 6-foot-8 Illikainen is another talented new Badger who will likely start off on the bench. The departures of Kaminsky and Dekker to the NBA open up a ton of playing time in the front court, and as usual, Ryan will probably use players he’s familiar with to plug in the holes. Junior Vitto Brown is the likely choice at center while redshirt freshman Ethan Happ will start at power forward. However, don’t expect Illikainen to get buried too deep. The stretch-four can shoot, play in the post and already has a solid body at 225 pounds. He’ll obviously need to adjust to the physical play of the Big Ten, but Illikainen has the tools to be Wisconsin’s first big man off the bench if he proves himself in camp.
A natural small forward, the 6-foot-5, 200 pound Iverson is an exceptional athlete who could wind up being the most dynamic player in this recruiting class down the road. Not only does he project to be an above-average defender, Iverson is a terrific finisher and passer who isn’t afraid to crash the boards. Really, there isn’t much not to like about him. The problem for Iverson as far as next year goes is that he plays the same position as Nigel Hayes. Now that Kaminsky and Dekker are gone, Hayes (who averaged 12.4 points and 6.2 rebounds last season) should assume the role of alpha-dog for the Badgers. With Hayes playing the majority of the minutes at the three and sophomore Riley Dearring also fighting for time on the wing, there won’t be a ton of time left for Iverson. Still, don’t be surprised if he manages to get himself on the court, as his speed and athleticism are rare at Wisconsin.
Like Illikainen, Thomas is a freshman big who will be fighting for minutes in the Badgers unproven frontcourt. Still only 17, Thomas is a raw talent who will probably benefit from spending most of his first year of college on the bench. At 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds, the Maryland native brings very good size and toughness for his position. He just might have to spend next season developing his game before he can hope to beat out Brown, Happ or Illikainen.
Freshmen don’t start often for Ryan, but if one does next year it will be Pritzl. That being said, expect Illikainen and Iverson to both get on the court, with Illikainen probably getting the edge in minutes because of his position. Thomas may not play next season, but obviously that is yet to be determined.