The 2016-’17 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2016-’17 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 said team.
Imagine yourself as a pilot in training who happens to be taking a commercial flight across the country. The pilots managing the flight suddenly become violently ill and the crew desperately needs someone to land the plane. You decide to step in and save the day, get the applause, and rival Captain Sully for media fanfare.
Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but that’s what Greg Gard did for Wisconsin last season.
After a dreadful 6-5 start, three losses at home, and a crushing upset loss to Western Illinois at home, things weren’t looking all that great for the Badgers. If Wisconsin couldn’t find a way to navigate a manageable non-conference schedule, how was the team going to handle the rigors of Big Ten play?
But then Bo Ryan retired after a win over Texas A&M Corpus Christian and Greg Gard took over. He got the team back to playing fundamental basketball and things took over in late January with wins over Indiana and Michigan State at home. Eventually, the team ended the season with a 22-13 record and a Sweet 16 appearance.
It was a whirlwind turnaround, but expectations will be different this time around.
Gard might have got the benefit of the doubt as an interim coach managing a 6-5 team, but that will no longer be the case this season. Wisconsin returns its entire starting lineup from last season and is also adding a few new pieces on the recruiting trail. There’s little reason to think the Badgers won’t contend for the Big Ten title and beyond and Gard will have to get used to those expectations this season.
And with that in mind, here’s a look at what to expect this year.
1. 2015-’16 Season Performance
- Record: 22-13
- KenPom Team Rating: #38
- RPI Rating: #36
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (Sweet 16)
Last years Badgers basketball season was many things. It was compelling, amusing, curious, fascinating and unusual all in one up and down and up again season. It was the most unlikely/likely Buzzcut season that Big Ten fans have ever seen.
As we mentioned above, the Badgers lost their Hall of Fame coach in December after a somewhat slow 4-2 start out of the gates with losses to Western Illinois (woof) and a not so good Georgetown team. From there, Wisconsin -- under interim head coach Greg Gard -- sputtered to a 9-9 record (1-4 in the Big Ten conference). Things looked bleak. Gard, who Ryan openly campaigned for despite their record with Wisconsin’s AD, looked overwhelmed. The players looked uninterested and Wisconsin looked like they were going to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the Clinton administration.
But the Goonies never say die, and neither do the Badgers. Gard (and by proxy, Nigel Hayes) inspired the team to start playing the type of basketball they knew they were capable of. Ethan Happ became a revolution. Vitto Brown became a three point bomber. Hayes gave us glimpses of that ceiling we all think he has. And Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter seemed to have a contest on who could convert more important, crunch time, buzzer beater shots:
And the rest is history. Gard became the official head coach of the Badgers after finishing with a 12-6 Big Ten record (starting the season 1-4 and finishing 12-6 is still jaw dropping to me), Wisconsin made it to the Sweet 16 (where they ultimately lost to Notre Dame by five) and return every single member of that team going into this year.
2. Offseason Exits
Although many teams in the Big Ten (notably Iowa and Maryland) lose a ton from last year’s roster, Wisconsin is one of the fortunate programs that is seeing almost no offseason attrition. The only players leaving are Riley Dearring and Jordan Smith and neither contributed all that much during last season.
To put into perspective what Wisconsin is losing, just consider the amount of minutes that Dearring and Smith played last season. During the course of the entire year, the two players combined for 15 (!!!) total minutes. Yes, despite everything Wisconsin accomplished last year, the team is losing just 0.2 percent of its minutes.
That’s absolutely insane.
We could dive into how that’s significant historically, but frankly, it doesn’t require a genius to figure out that returning 99.8 percent of its minutes is an important statistic for a team. Perhaps it wouldn’t be if the team wans’t good last year, but Wisconsin went 22-13 overall. As such, expect much of the same.
3. New Additions
This season, the Badgers will be adding two new recruits. These recruits are Aleem Ford and D’Mitrik Trice. Both are rated as three-star prospects by 247Sports. Trice is listed as a point guard and Ford is listed as a small forward.
The simple truth of the matter is that neither of these players are expected to get much time this season. Both are decent, but not great prospects and joining a roster with an abundance of proven depth and talent. Barring a massive surprise and no major injuries, both players project to redshirt.
However, if one of these two can see time, expect it to be Trice. This is because Wisconsin is a tad thinner in the backcourt than it is on the wing, where Ford would try to get his playing time. Again, it’s not likely that either sees serious time, but Trice does have some route to the court. He could provide some respectable minutes off the bench given his composure and intelligence on the offensive end of the floor.
4. Team Strengths
With much of the same roster in place, Badger fans should expect much of the same on the court. This team should remain as one of the better defensive teams in the country with a consistent rebounding attack, and a deep and talented wing group.
Perhaps no aspect of Wisconsin’s team was more impressive last year than Wisconsin’s defensive improvement and interior defense. The Badgers had trouble early on in the season, but developed into the No. 13 defense nationally. With so many of the same pieces, it’s hard to think an area that large would regress too much.
Wisconsin was also a quietly good rebounding team last season. The Badgers ranked in the top 80 in both offensive and defensive rebounding and saw some impressive numbers from Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ. If those two can replicate what they did last season on the boards, this should be an area where the Badgers can perform well.
The wing group also stands to be quite impressive for Wisconsin this season. With Brown and Nigel Hayes back on the roster, there are two proven starters back on the roster. Additionally, the team should have a plethora of depth options from players like Aleem Ford, Alex Illikainen, and Khalil Iverson among others. Brown and Hayes will dominate the minutes, but this is a deep and talented group.
5. Team Red Flags
With so much returning, there aren’t going to be a ton of red flags for Wisconsin heading into this season. However, there are some areas that could have a significant impact on whether the Badgers can end up bringing home the Big Ten title and making a postseason run. Those will primarily come on the offensive end, highlighted by the team’s perimeter shooting and inconsistent interior scoring outside the post.
By most measures, Wisconsin was a decent outside shooting team last season. The Badgers ranked No. 157 in three-point percentage and saw Vitto Brown (40 percent) and Bronson Koenig (39 percent) shoot well from outside the arc. However, when Nigel Hayes’ shooting (29.3 percent) is factored in, it’s easy to see why this is a concern. In fact, if Hayes had shot even remotely well (13.3 percent) in the NCAA Tournament, there’s a decent chance Wisconsin ends up in the Elite Eight or the Final Four.
Along with its outside scoring troubles, Wisconsin also showed some red flags inside the arc. While Ethan Happ proved to be an excellent addition to the team’s lineup at center, Wisconsin’s guards had a lot of trouble scoring inside the arc. Most of the guards and wings finished well below 50 percent from two-point range, which could be a major concern for this season. Wisconsin can rely on Happ, but will need to find others who can score inside.
Wisconsin also simply needs to see some overall offensive improvement. Don’t get me wrong, Wisconsin was a good offensive team last season, but there were a lot of times when the team needed a bucket and couldn’t find that scoring option. Although some will say this is on Hayes, the team needs to find that extra gear for big games.
6. Top Player
The best part about this Wisconsin team is that they’re really a three headed Hydra. There are going to be games when Hayes is going to look like one of the most dominant player in the Big Ten as he displays that NBA-level offensive talent (especially when he’s on the block). During other stretches, Bronson Koenig (who might just be Wisconsin’s most important player if they have hopes of making yet another deep NCAA Tournament run) will be responsible for keeping the opposing defenses from clogging the paint.
And then, of course, there’s Ethan Happ. If Happ can show that he has developed any semblance of a mediocre jump shot (or you know, the confidence to at least shoot them), he’ll be the Badgers best all around player for the entire season -- and there really isn’t much debate. Don’t believe me? Go back and read the stories from March Madness last season.
Happ was able to (somehow) amp up his individual output (which was already rock solid for a freshman) when it mattered most. He was a monster on the block and the boards. He somehow wiggles and bangs his way into some of the best offensive position you’re going to see in college basketball. He runs the floor with relative ease for a guy his size and on top of that, he’s already an accomplished passer with great vision that can find shooters creeping around the perimeter when faced with a double-team..
While I love Hayes personally, it’s Happ that has (or will) catch your eye.
He’s not only the top player for what should be the Big Ten’s top program going into the 2016-17 season, but when it’s all said and done, he could be one of the best five players in the conference.
7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/11 - Central Arkansas
- 11/15 - at Creighton
- 11/17 - Chicago State
- 11/21 - Tennessee (Maui Jim Maui Invitational)
- 11/22 - Georgetown/Oregon (Maui Jim Maui Invitational)
- 11/23 - Chaminade/Oklahoma State/UConn/North Carolina
- 11/27 - Prairie View A&M
- 11/29 - Syracuse
- 12/3 - Oklahoma
- 12/7 - Idaho St.
- 12/10 - at Marquette
- 12/14 - Green Bay
- 12/23 - Florida A&M
- 12/27 - Rutgers
- 1/3 - at Indiana
- 1/8 - at Purdue
- 1/12 - Ohio State
- 1/17 - Michigan
- 1/21 - at Minnesota
- 1/24 - Penn State
- 1/28 - Rutgers (New York)
- 1/31- at Illinois
- 2/5 - Indiana
- 2/9 - at Nebraska
- 2/12 - Northwestern
- 2/16 - at Michigan
- 2/19 - Maryland
- 2/23 - at Ohio State
- 2/25 - at Michigan State
- 3/2 - Iowa
- 3/5 - Minnesota
This non-conference schedule could wind up being very, very entertaining. Wisconsin is going to be put up to the test early with matchups at Creighton (#32 according to KenPom, against Tennessee to start the Maui Invitational, (hopefully) Oregon and North Carolina in Maui (North Carolina comes in at #5 in the KenPom rankings while Oregon comes in at #6), Syracuse (#12), Oklahoma (#27) and at Marquette (#47).
I have already blacked out those dates both at work and with my fiance. I’m going to be too busy.
In terms of the Big Ten slate, getting to tip off against Rutgers is always a nice appetizer to get into the swing of conference play; an appetized the Badgers are going to need because their next two games are at Indiana and at Purdue.
What did Wisconsin against the state of Indiana that made the Big Ten schedule makers so angry?
After those first three games, the Badgers have a pretty manageable road with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State at home and road games against Minnesota, Illinois and a neutral game in New York with Rutgers for their Super Saturday of Hoops and Hockey.
In fact, Greg Gard and company should be able to navigate this conference schedule with relative ease. The Badgers only have to play Michigan State (away), Maryland (home), Purdue (away) and Iowa (home) once a piece. As long as they split their series with Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan, Wisconsin should be able to grab 13 or 14 conference wins.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Bronson Koenig (Sr.) - 95%
- SG: Zak Showalter (Rs. Sr.) - 70%
- SF: Vitto Brown (Sr.) - 90%
- PF: Nigel Hayes (Sr.) - 95%
- C: Ethan Happ (Rs. So.) - 95%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
Wisconsin’s backcourt figures to be an intriguing position group coming into this season. Although Bronson Koenig will certainly lock down the minutes at point guard, there could be some drama behind him and at point guard. Zak Showalter should return for most of those minutes, but he should have some competition behind him.
The biggest players who should be competing for the spot alongside Koenig and for minutes behind Koenig figure to be Jordan Hill, Khalil Iverson, and Showalter. All three are capable options and should be in play to start at some point during the season. Showalter will have the inside track due to his experience, but don’t count out the younger players either. Brevin Pritzl could also be a sleeper after coming off an injury.
On the wing, Wisconsin’s lineup should be pretty well settled. Vitto Brown and Nigel Hayes will start from day one and will likely hold onto those spots for the duration of the season. However, there should be additional depth behind them. Returners Alex Illikainen and Iverson should get minutes here and incoming freshman Aleem Ford is capable enough to earn some minutes off the bench if things go right.
Upfront, Wisconsin shouldn’t have much drama. Ethan Happ figures to be the team’s best big man this season and will lock down most of the minutes. The only excitement will be determining who will get the minutes behind him. Expect Charlie Thomas to get most of that playing time.
9. Team Perspective From Curt Hogg of Bucky’s Fifth Quarter
"If you had to summarize a Badgers preview in one sentence, it would be this: They are returning 99.8 percent of their minutes from a team that made the Sweet Sixteen last season. All five starters--Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter, Nigel Hayes, Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown--are back. Hayes is the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year (though that award isn't a guarantee, just ask Melo Trimble) and Happ and Koenig were also preseason All-Big Ten.
There are thousands of Division-I men's basketball players, and so the more top-level players that a team has, the better. Wisconsin certainly has two of the top 75 in Hayes and Happ, with Koenig not too far behind. Not many teams the Badgers will face during the regular season can match that, and very few can match the depth, either.
Wisconsin could realistically play up to 11 men on the roster, as they gained guard Brevin Pritzl and forward Andy Van Vliet after a medical redshirt and a year of ineligibility, respectively, sidelined them for 2015-16. That gives head coach Greg Gard a variety of options on any given night. Figuring out which units mesh together best could be a quandary to watch at the beginning of the season, but if all else fails, relying on the starting five, Khalil Iverson, Jordan Hill and Charlie Thomas isn't a bad scenario.
The Badgers should be the Big Ten favorites this season. They won't be the Frank Kaminsky-led gauntlet of a couple seasons ago, but are ranked seventh and eighth in defensive and offensive efficiency on KenPom's preseason boards. A fourth consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance is the reasonable floor for this team, and they have a very reasonable chance to make a third Final Four in that span." - Curt Hogg.
10. Overall Season Outlook
By all the general measures (talent, depth, and returners), this Wisconsin team looks like it should be in the Big Ten title hunt and the pursuit of another Final Four appearance. There are simply too much known commodities to believe that Wisconsin will fail to be competitive within the conference and beyond.
However, there are still some questions about this team and Greg Gard heading into this season. With heightened expectations, a good but not great offense, and the potential for some players to take a step back, there is going to be some uncertainty. The roster has all the pieces on paper, but fans are going to be expecting more than a good year. Gard has to find a way to reach that next level with the same pieces.
The good news (as mentioned) is that this roster is loaded. The entire lineup has proven options and many of the depth pieces are in position to improve as well. With even mild improvement from last year’s underclassmen, Wisconsin could have one of the deepest rotations in the nation. Even if the nightmare scenarios occur, it’s hard to see things driftly too much in the wrong direction.
Wisconsin will have some serious pressure to meet expectations this season, but with Gard at the helm and a dynamic group of returners, expect things to keep rolling in Madison.