The Wisconsin men’s basketball program has never been more successful than it was over the four-year run that just ended. The Badgers swept the Big Ten regular season and tournament title in 2014-15, reached the Final Four in 2014 and 2015, and made trips to the Sweet 16 in 2016 and 2017.
Now that every contributor from those teams is gone, the Badgers will turn the page on the next era of Wisconsin basketball. There are a lot of questions surrounding Wisconsin heading into the 2017-18 season, but most of them are some form of “who will replace the production of _______?”
That’s because no team in the Big Ten, and arguably the country, has more production to replace than Wisconsin. The Badgers graduated four long-term contributors this offseason, with Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter all moving on after successful careers. Veteran guard Jordan Hill also departed, joining the Seattle Redhawks as a graduate transfer.
Wisconsin always seems to reload with new talent in the pipeline, but the 2017 senior class leaves a unique challenge. Hayes and Koenig were contributors on the Final Four teams and have been two of the better players in the Big Ten the last two years.
Hayes graduated as Wisconsin’s third all-time leading scorer with 1,857 points, while being the only player in program history to be in the top 10 in career points, rebounds and assists. Hayes, who signed a contract with the New York Knicks this offseason, earned some form of All-Big Ten honors in all four of his years in Madison. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 14.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game in 2016-17.
Koenig became the school’s all-time leader in single-season 3-pointers (103) and career 3-pointers (270) on the way to finishing 10th on Wisconsin’s all-time scoring list (1,459). The 6-foot-4 point guard was a third-team All-Big Ten selection in 2016 and a second-team honoree in 2017. Koenig averaged 14.5 points and 2.1 assists per game as a senior.
Showalter also become a staple of the recent Wisconsin teams. The former walk-on guard started every game during his final two years with the Badgers, playing energetic defense while providing athleticism and a reliable shooting threat. The 6-foot-3 guard made the 2017 Big Ten All-Defensive Team after a senior season in which he averaged 8.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.
The Badgers will also need to replace the 6.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game of Brown, a 6-foot-8 forward who started 71 games over the past two years. Hill played in 76 career games, but averaged just 1.5 points, 1.1 rebounds and 0.5 assists per game last year.
How will Wisconsin fill the roles of the departures?
Everything will start will Ethan Happ this season. The 6-foot-10 junior has started every game in his career and was the go-to guy at times last season, averaging 14.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game on the way to earning first-team all-conference honors and being named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Happ should be one of the better players in the country this season, but it’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts now that he’ll be Wisconsin’s lone established scoring threat. There has been talk of revamping his non-existent jump shot, but the real key to a huge junior season will be Wisconsin finding reliable second options on the offensive end.
The Badgers appear to have enough 3-point shooting to stretch the floor and give Happ room to work inside. Wisconsin should always be able to put three or four 3-point shooters on the floor this year, with Brad Davison, Alex Illikainen, Kobe King, Brevin Pritzl, D’Mitrik Trice and Andy Van Vliet likely in for significant minutes.
Illikainen, Van Vliet, Charles Thomas IV, Aaron Moesch, redshirt freshman Aleem Ford and true freshman Nate Reuvers are the candidates to fill the frontcourt roles of Hayes and Brown. Illikainen and Thomas have seen fairly regular minutes at times during their first two years with Wisconsin, while Moesch has been asked to be a steady hand on several occasions. However, none of them have shown that they can be counted upon as a regular contributor in the Big Ten.
Van Vliet may see the largest increase in minutes, as he brings height and a smooth 3-point stroke. Ford and Reuvers will likely both be key parts of the rotation in the future, but it’s unclear if they will be ready to contribute this season.
Khalil Iverson has been a contributor for the Badgers. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound junior isn’t necessarily a frontcourt player, but he will likely continue to play a small forward role for the Badgers. A dynamic athlete, Iverson has been a role player the last two years, appearing in 39 games but averaging just 3.2 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. Those numbers should go up this season, as Iverson will be counted on to attack the basket and provide more of an offensive threat.
The defensive end of the floor may be the biggest question facing Wisconsin’s new frontcourt. Happ and Iverson should be solid, but everyone else has weakness. Illikainen and Thomas have both been too slow-footed to see the floor at times, while Van Vliet and Reuvers will likely need to put on some weight in order to defend inside. The Badgers have a proven track record of replenishing their defensive system, but it’ll be interesting to see how that takes place this year.
In the backcourt, Hill would have been in position to fill some of the minutes left by Koenig and Showalter, but the Badgers will need to go younger after his transfer. Trice will be the primary ballhandler after a successful freshman campaign in which he appeared in all 37 games and averaged 5.6 points and 1.7 assists per game. Trice also showed he can defend the point guard position and appears to want to be a leader, which will come in handy for the young Badgers.
Pritzl is also in line for a major increase in minutes after an uneven redshirt freshman season in which he was bouncing back from a broken foot that cost him nearly all of 2015-16. Pritzl averaged 1.9 points and 1.1 rebounds in 8.1 minutes per game last season. He never established a true role in the rotation, as the 3-point shooter struggled to connect from deep, shooting just 23.8 percent (5-for-21) from behind the arc. He’ll likely have a longer rope to let shots fly this season, as he’ll be needed to score.
Davison and King are highly-touted recruits who will likely receive significant minutes as true freshmen. Davison is seemingly more of a true point guard, while King will likely start his career off the ball. Both showed a lot of ability during Wisconsin’s offseason trip to New Zealand and Australia. Davison was fourth on the team with 11.2 points per game, while King was fifth with 9.2 points per game. Both showed the ability to hit 3-pointers and a willingness to defend, while King also attacked the offensive glass, something that could be crucial with Wisconsin’s potentially light-rebounding frontcourt.
Overall, Wisconsin will look a lot different this winter and the Badgers have plenty of work ahead if they are going to finish in the top four of the Big Ten standings for the 17th straight year. It’ll be impossible to replace all of the production left by Brown, Hayes, Hill, Koenig and Showalter, but Wisconsin will need to find a way to fill some of what they did on the floor.
As always though, it’s tough to count Wisconsin out. The Badgers have an uncanny ability of developing players to the point that they are ready to contribute by the time that they are juniors. Several players will need to make that jump if the 2016-17 Badgers are going to continue their recent success.