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Wisconsin Badgers Unusually Losing Only One Senior To Graduation

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In a program that typically relies on developing its players into senior leaders, a handful of factors led to only one player in the 2016 Wisconsin Badgers senior class- former walk-on Jordan Smith.

Jordan Smith is the lone departure to graduation in Madison, while the future of Nigel Hayes remains uncertain.
Jordan Smith is the lone departure to graduation in Madison, while the future of Nigel Hayes remains uncertain.
Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The past year was full of frantic change for the Wisconsin Badgers basketball program, but the roster will not change much heading into the 2016-17 season. The lone departure to graduation is guard Jordan Smith, although the Badgers also recently learned that long-time assistant coach Gary Close will be leaving the program. Smith came to Wisconsin in 2011 as a walk-on and took a redshirt year following his sophomore season. He was a walk-on for most of his career but was granted a scholarship for the second semesters of both the 2014-15 season and the 2015-16 season.

Smith was never a major contributor on the court, but it was gratifying to see him hit a couple of free throws in his final game at the Kohl Center. The Minnesota native's final appearance came in home territory at the Barn versus the Gophers and he confusingly managed to block the first (and last) shot of his college career. A common favorite of sports fans is to joke around about how unskilled walk-ons are at basketball, but Smith is the all-time leading scorer at Orono High School (even besting NBA Badger Jon Leuer's Orono point total) and is better than 95% of Americans at the sport of basketball.

Smith's departure carries some symbolic weight, as the Badgers will now be without a Minneapolis-area player on the roster for the first time in over ten years. Smith was the only remaining player from the Twin Cities area after Riley Dearring announced his transfer early in the season. Forward Alex Illikainen is the lone Minnesota resident left on the roster- he hails from northern Minnesota and played at an academy in New Hampshire for his senior year of high school. Wisconsin has done quite well with players from the Cities over the years- Jordan Taylor, Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz, Kammron Taylor, and Leuer. Coach Greg Gard is already trying to get a MSP presence back on the roster and has an offer extended to Lakeville's Nathan Reuvers.

Whether or not Nigel Hayes will be back in red next year is still in question. His mother has stated that she wants her son to earn his degree, and his NBA stock may be a bit down after a slow finish to the season. He is still involved with a lawsuit against the NCAA which could complicate his decision, but I expect him to return for his senior year. He is reportedly only 20 credits away from his degree so he would have the option to put an extra focus on basketball if he were to return.

So how did a developmental program like Wisconsin end up with only one graduating senior in 2016? Typically there's a mix of 4-year and 5-year seniors in Madison, but there happened to be big departures from both the 2011 and 2012 classes. Sam Dekker left after his junior year for the NBA. Guard George Marshall transferred to South Dakota State, and Maryland got a good look at him in the tournament this year. Oh, and there was a guy named Jarrod Uthoff who transferred to another school in the Big Ten and had a pretty impressive career.

The Badgers are in great shape roster-wise heading into the next year. Players who were already on the roster but unable to contribute this year like Andy Van Vliet and Brevin Pritzl will enter the mix and compete for playing time with a solid core of guys who received invaluable experience from the NCAA Tournament run this season. The main issue for Wisconsin next year might be dealing with the increased expectations that will be surrounding the program, and that's usually a good problem to have.