Wisconsin basketball is in a far different place heading into this season. Of course no one knew Bo Ryan would retire abruptly after just a few games, but Wisconsin did know it’d be without three starters, including the National Player of the Year and two key bench contributors.
Making the NCAA Tournament looked unattainable but once Ryan retired Greg Gard rallied the program and they returned to the Sweet Sixteen. The questions this season are much less critical, if that’s the right word. It’s more about living up to expectations in 2016-17.
1) Can Wisconsin meet the high expectations for the season?
Last year’s team entered the year with incredibly low expectations. This season will be different. The program’s not unfamiliar with high expectations as just two years ago the Badgers met the highest of expectations (except for winning the national title).
Basically everyone returns this year. The Badgers will be good and Gard seems to have the appropriate temperament to handle the high expectations. As of right now it looks like he’ll be perfectly fine and capable of managing the team through any adversity. He really stabilized the program last season and the team responded to his leadership. All the indicators point toward Wisconsin making another run at a Big Ten title.
2) Who else might emerge from the deep supporting cast this season?
Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ are the unquestioned “big three” (lacking a better way to put it). But there’s a group of other players who could emerge as a great fourth option.
Zak Showalter emerged a bit last year, uppinghis three point shooting from 14 percent to 34 percent and show potential for the future. Showalter has improved his shooting and he’s already a tremendous athlete. With Hayes and Koenig he won’t be a number one option, but he could become even more of a playmaker next year.
Vitto Brown also improved tremendously last season (who knew he could shoot threes?). Brown quadrupled his minutes as a sophomore (from six to 25 minutes per game) and he actually scored in double figures in eight of the team’s last 13 games.
Beyond Brown and Showalter there’s a group of sophomores (Khalil Iverson, Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas), plus Jordan Hill who could really make the leap.
All those guys could take another step in their development. Wisconsin’s been very good about growing talent over the years. I’d bet on Showalter, though, to elevate his game a bit more. He’s a great athlete and if he can be a little more dynamic off the dribble it’ll complement his improved jumper and his ability off the ball.
3) What sort of season will Nigel Hayes have?
Last year Hayes went from the third option on a Final Four team to the first option on a team suddenly void of stars. It was a leap, particularly when the first two options were Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker (two NBA first round picks by the way).
Needless to say, the beginning of last season was bumpy. Hayes had to be more assertive on offense. At times it looked forced. Hayes’ shooting percentage dropped from 49 percent to 36 percent and 39 percent from beyond the arc to a lowly 29 percent. He took four more shots a game, but made about the same number of them. He excelled at getting to the line, though, taking more than seven free throws a game.
That being said, he was thrust into a very different role, on a very different team. With three new starters, a new coach and a group of new role players, Hayes probably felt pressure to be overly aggressive. The team progressed and Hayes grew into his role a bit more as the season went on. Unfortunately his shooting percentage didn’t improve much as the season continued.
Hayes is a preseason All-American pick and he should be much more natural in the offensive leadership role. I expect him to bounce back, shooting-wise, and become more of an efficient offensive scorer. Plus, the supporting cast should be more confident and reliable. If the team continues to gel and he gets his jumper back, he’ll have a great season and so will the Badgers.