With all due respect to the previous 116 years of Wisconsin Badgers basketball, the last two seasons have been unquestionably the most successful back-to-back years in program history. Wisconsin's previous Final Four appearance before then was 2000, and the only other Final Four appearance in program history was 1941. Bo Ryan has done it his way, recruiting heavily from the state of Wisconsin and the surrounding area by turning low ranked recruits into Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky and Duje Dukan to name a few, three Badger players who signed guaranteed contracts to NBA rosters this season. Does Ryan have enough magic to make a third consecutive Final Four? We break down the top storylines heading into this season.
How Good Are Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes?
While some college teams have one star that can carry them throughout an entire season, Wisconsin uses a formula in which multiple "stars" are able to provide production in a multitude of ways. Coming into this season, unquestionably the two best players on the Badgers' roster are Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes. Koenig came on strong following the injury of Traevon Jackson, and it could be argued that Koenig was more consistent throughout the season than Jackson. Koenig is given the keys this season with Jackson and Josh Gasser out of the fold, and his importance could determine how well the Badgers fare this season.
While Koenig was thrust into the starting lineup, Hayes earned in his minutes in a loaded Badger frontcourt. He developed a reliable 3-point shot, continued his blistering rate at getting to the free throw line, and shot nearly 50% from the floor. I don't expect Hayes' approach to change, but he will have to take more shots for this Badger team to compete at the top of the Big Ten again. It would also be interesting to see if Bo Ryan uses Hayes as a point forward, similar to what Iowa State does with star Georges Niang in some situations.
What Can Badger Fans Expect In Terms of Depth?
The likely starting lineup includes mostly returners, including Koenig, Hayes, Zak Showalter, Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ. While Badger fans can argue this is one of the best starting lineups in the Big Ten, there remains big question marks regarding who plays behind them. Bo Ryan traditionally doesn't play more than 8 or 9, so finding three players to step up shouldn't be too challenging. The big question becomes who they actually are.
Whoever it is, it will be an extremely young bench unit. Four-star recruit Brevin Pretzl could be a major weapon off the bench. Pretzl was a ESPN top-100 recruit, and is a knockdown shooter. If Showalter is struggling to get his offense going, look for Pretzl to be a perfect fit to come in and light up the scoreboard. Behind Koenig, redshirt sophomore Jordan Hill should earn a few minutes, but look for Koenig to still grab the majority of the minutes here. In the frontcourt, it seems unclear between Riley Dearring and Khalil Iverson as to who will play behind Hayes and Vitto Brown, but don't expect so many of these minutes to go around. Behind Happ, Badger fans are really excited about Alex Illikainen, but he might need a year before he can make a serious impact.
Does Bo Ryan's Announcement Take Away From the Badgers' On-Court Play?
For anyone that follows this blog or college basketball in the offseason, you're well aware that Bo Ryan mentioned in late June that the 2015-16 season would be his last. Well, Ryan's announcement held true for all of six weeks, when he said in mid-August that he wasn't sure if it was actually his last. Bizarre? Distracting? Purposeful? Yes, yes and maybe? Whatever Ryan's tactics were, it does seem strange that he made this announcement following two consecutive Final Fours in the midst of building Wisconsin into a national basketball powerhouse. Whether Ryan actually leaves at the end of this season is anyone's guess, but the timing of both the first and second announcement come at strange times. Look for college basketball writers, analysts and pundits to bring up this point all year, despite it having no relevance to the Badgers' on-court performance.
After Wisconsin's magical last two seasons, watching the Badgers play has become must see TV. They have diverted from their slower, shot clock-draining style of play and with guys like Kaminsky and Dekker, they've turned into an offensive juggernaut. With Hayes and Koenig leading the charge this season, there's no reason this team can't continue to play at an extremely high level. The bench remains an enormous question mark, but if anyone can figure it out, it's Bo Ryan. That's why I refuse to believe he's going anywhere for a long, long time.