Wisconsin’s been on the big stage a bunch. But until recently the program’s flown a bit under the radar, so to speak. Outside expectations haven’t overwhelmed the program as Wisconsin’s made a habit of exceeding them time and time again.
These days, it’s different. Wisconsin’s expected to compete for Big Ten championships. The program’s won four regular season championships and three conference tournament titles since 2002 and has solidified as a yearly contender in the conference. Wisconsin’s expected to make the NCAA Tournament every year as well, as they’ve done so 18 straight seasons. And now, the program’s expected to make deep tournament runs, something they’ve accomplished as they’ve reached three Final Fours since the 1999. It’s definitely a shift.
2015 was such an interesting year for Wisconsin. For maybe the first time in program history, the team had huge expectations after a 2014 Final Four appearance. Every important contributor, save Ben Brust, returned and all the expectations raised exponentially: National Player of the Year for Frank Kaminsky, Big Ten regular season and tournament titles, NCAA Tournament and Final Four appearances and the program’s first National Title. That year, Wisconsin checked every box except the last one.
For years, the Badgers didn’t get a ton of national attention other than being the cute underdogs. Of course, those who really know the game have respected the Badgers for a while. Now, the program’s a force and the expectations are high again. Let’s take a look at what’s in front of the Badgers.
The Badgers open the season ninth in the AP Top 25 and tenth in the USA Today Coaches Poll. In fact, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi already has them projected as the three-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Last year, after weird issues with an unexpected coaching change mid-season, Greg Gard refocused the team and against all odds made the Elite Eight. Basically everyone’s back this season, including Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, so expectations are once again sky high.
More than a few outlets have picked Wisconsin to win the Big Ten (like here and here and here). And the program has 25-1 odds to win the National Title, according to ESPN’s Best Case/Worst Case scenario.
In 2014-15 the Badgers met the impossibly high expectations. Admittedly not as high as that year, how Wisconsin manages expectations and plays through adversity may determine this season’s ultimate outcome.
Although secondary to the team, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have sizable expectations on their shoulders this season. Both Hayes and Koenig appear on the Lute Olson Award Watch List. Hayes is the Big Ten’s Preseason Player of the Year, too.
Hayes and Koenig moved into different roles last year, with the departure of basically everyone from two straight Final Four teams. Not to mention the fact that Bo Ryan resigned in the middle of a transitional season, turning the keys over to Gard early in the season. They dealt with a lot last year and many of the lessons aren’t to be repeated.
It’s not just Hayes and Koenig though. Everyone around them will be expected to take another leap (Ethan Happ, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown), but Hayes and Koenig will set the tone and will be the leaders heading forward.
We shouldn’t forget about Greg Gard. Against all odds he guided Wisconsin to the NCAA Tournament last year and earned the job. Gard achieved that by getting the program back to its foundation: the swing offense.
I suspect it’ll be much of the same focus this year and like Gard re-focusing the team, he’ll keep their focus on not the expectations, but the day-to-day and what’s important.
Wisconsin opens the season at the Maui Invitational on Friday against Central Arkansas, hoping to avoid an early season upset like they had last season.