The upcoming season will be an intriguing one in Madison to say the least. Coming off of a trip to the national title game, the Badgers are losing their two best players in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, along with a host of other veterans. That doesn’t mean Bo Ryan’s team lacks talent however. Although Wisconsin will need production from plenty of unproven players in 2015-16, there are a few who will need to give major contributions if the Badgers are to come close to repeating last season’s success. Let’s take a look at three of the most important.
#1. Nigel Hayes
No surprise here. Hayes was already a huge cog in Wisconsin’s lineup last season, playing 33.5 minutes per game and averaging 12.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2 assists per game. Now, however, the Badgers will need even more from the 6’8" small forward. With Kaminsky and Dekker gone, Hayes and point guard Bronson Koenig will likely be the focal points of Wisconsin’s offense. That means Hayes will have to adjust to taking more shots, having the ball in key moments and dealing with defenses that will be primarily focused on shutting him down.
Can the junior handle it? There’s no reason to think he can’t. Hayes proved his clutch chops by averaging 12.3 points in the NCAA Tournament last season, and he seemed to always have a big game when the Badgers needed an extra boost. He is also a complete player who can shoot jumpers, play in the paint and defend. The biggest challenge for him next season will be keeping his efficiency (49.7 percent shooting last season, 39.6 percent from three) high even with the expected increase in touches. Still, there’s no reason not to expect a big season from Hayes, who will likely be among the top players in the conference.
#2 Bronson Koenig
The Badgers other returning starter, Koenig is another player who will need to make the jump from proven starter to frontline player next season. Koenig entered 2014-15 as one of Wisconsin’s first players off the bench, but was elevated to starter when Traevon Jackson went down with a broken foot. Although he struggled at times on defense, the 6’4" point guard was a key performer who continued to improve as the season went on. Of his 18 double-digit scoring efforts, 16 came after January 1st. He also proved himself to be dangerous from behind the arc, hitting 40.5 percent of his 3-point attempts.
The Badgers will need more of those things from Koenig this season, as the point guard will be relied upon heavily for his shooting, as well as his ability to be a floor general. As with Hayes though, there’s no reason to think Koenig can’t handle this, as he did a very good job running the Badgers’ offense last season while still providing solid scoring. The two biggest things the junior will need to improve are his defense and his shooting on two-point attempts, which was curiously only 42.4 percent last season. Still, the pieces are in place for Koenig to be one of the top point guards in the Big Ten. He will almost definitely play well over 30 minutes per game and should have no trouble improving upon last season’s stat line of 8.7 points and 2.5 assists per game.
#3 Zak Showalter
While Showalter was already going to be a key player for Wisconsin next season, the broken foot sustained by freshman guard Brevin Pritzl has elevated his importance. A hard-nosed shooting guard, the 6’2" Showalter will be counted on to be Koenig’s running mate in the Badgers starting backcourt. Although he only averaged 7.6 minutes per game last season, Showalter appeared in 35 contests and showed enough in his limited time to prove he can hold his own. Now, however, he needs to prove he can be effective in a much larger role. What Showalter brings to the table most is defense. The junior may not be the most athletic player, but he makes up for it with aggression, effort and good instincts, as his 2.5 steal percentage last season attests.
Still, his play on offense still leaves much to be desired. While he’s a good free throw shooter (88.9 percent in 2014-15), he went just two of 14 from behind the arc last season and has never been much of a perimeter threat. With the sharp shooting Pritzl now possibly missing the beginning of the season, the Badgers may need a little more from Showalter on that end of the court. Wisconsin has other wing options like Riley Dearring and Jordan Hill, but Showalter is the most experienced and will be expected to be one of the team’s biggest leaders. Others may end up scoring more than him, but the gritty guard should log major minutes as a pest to other team’s top perimeter scorers.
The Badgers have a number of unproven players who will have large roles next season, but it will ultimately be the team’s veterans who have the largest effect. Ryan has always been a coach that leans on his most experienced guys, and that likely won’t change in 2015-'16.