The Wisconsin Badgers enter 2017-18 as a bit of an unknown, having graduated four of their five starters in Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter. The Badgers always seem to keep marching along, but it’ll be interesting if that can continue this season.
Let’s take a look at whether the Badgers can do just that and some of the team’s biggest questions heading into next season.
Three Questions for Wisconsin:
1. How will Ethan Happ adapt to his new role?
Ethan Happ has built an impressive resume during his first two seasons on the court for Wisconsin. Happ, an All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten performer, has two-year averages of 13.2 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks per game.
However, the 6-foot-10 junior will experience a new reality this year, when opposing defenses are tailored to stop him. That wasn’t an option for opponents last year, as the now-graduated Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes received plenty of attention from opponents.
Happ has been doubled in the past, handling it with mixed reviews. Happ is a good passer, typically out of the post. While Hayes was the best at this, at times, Happ was adept at catching the ball on the block, waiting for the double to come, then finding Hayes on the opposite block. That should be there some this year. Although the Badgers don’t necessarily have another low-post scorer, junior forward Khalil Iverson should be in line to receive some of those dump passes when Happ is doubled.
Happ has also shown the ability to spin and maneuver out of double teams, while using the rim to help him shield the ball from shot-blockers and finish on the other side. Not sure there’s been anyone else in college basketball recently who have the same uncanny ability to get a shot off down low.
And there’s no single thing that makes the difference. It’s footwork, it’s the ability to see angles and exactly where defenders are, and it’s just a relentless desire to get to the rim. Whatever it is, it works, and shouldn’t be a skill that disappears.
Still, Happ can seem to move too fast for himself on occasions, rushing an ill-advised dribble or pass when the double comes or he gets uncomfortable. This could be mitigated this season if the Badgers can hit from behind the arc, something that wasn’t a team strength last season. Wisconsin’s best bet this year may be to be surround Happ will 3-point shooters, giving him easy releases when the double comes, which it will.
As far as the rumors of Happ developing a three-point stroke himself? Don’t expect that to show itself this year. Wisconsin’s August trip to New Zealand and Australia showed that Happ’s still not going to be a shooter. Which is fine, he doesn’t need to be a shooter to be productive. The next question on this list will go a long way in determining how productive Happ is in 2017-’18.
2. Where will secondary scoring come from?
Happ’s the man. He’s going to be the man for Wisconsin all season. The question is who else will put the ball in the basket for the Badgers, who lost four of their top-five scorers from last year. The now-departed Koenig (14.5 ppg), Hayes (14.0), Showalter (8.3), Brown (6.8) and Jordan Hill (1.5) combined to score 45.1 points per game, good for 62.3 percent of Wisconsin’s scoring.
Those points will come from somewhere, but there aren’t many veterans that appear to take over a heavy role. D’Mitrik Trice will likely be the second option after a strong freshman season in which he averaged 5.6 points and 1.7 assists. The 6-foot point guard will have the ball in his hands and be asked to make plays for the Badgers all season. He showed a willingness to take big shots last season, which he will need to do more often this year.
Brevin Pritzl will also be asked to relieve some of the scoring stress. The 6-foot-3 redshirt sophomore is supposed to bring shooting to the Badgers, but he struggled last year, connecting on just 23.8 percent (5-for-21) of his 3-point attempts.
However, Pritzl was third in scoring during Wisconsin’s summer trip, averaging 11.4 points per game, including shooting 7 of 9 from behind the arc in a 28-point performance against the New Zealand Breakers. While on the surface it would appear Pritzl has more pressure on him after being thrust into a bigger role, he may actually play more freely knowing that he can shoot without always worrying about where a better shot could have come from.
Iverson will improve his scoring from 3.9 points per game. However, his skill-set doesn’t exactly lead to a go-to scoring role. The 6-foot-5 junior is better suited for grabbing offensive rebounds, finding open space and finishing around the rim in situations where the defense is already broken down. He’ll get his this year, but he’s not likely to take over.
The frontcourt is full of unproven players who will need to make a jump in their junior seasons. Alex Illikainen, Charlie Thomas and Andy Van Vliet are all entering their third year in the program, and have all found some time on the floor in the past two years.
Illikainen has seen the most minutes, averaging 9.1 minutes per game in 60 appearances over past two years. The 6-foot-9 forward has a nice looking stroke, but has connected on just 29.5 percent (13-for-44) of his 3-point attempts thus far. It might be a lot to ask for Illikainen to make plays in the post or off the dribble, but if he can find his 3-point shot that could go a long way for the Wisconsin offense.
Van Vliet will be asked to provide some of that same outside tough. The 7-footer from Belgium appeared in 14 games last year after losing his freshman season due to eligibility issues. Van Vliet played just 3.4 minutes per game last year, connecting on 3-of-8 three-point attempts, but he could be in for more minutes if nobody else establishes themselves in the frontcourt.
Finally, Thomas has appeared in 59 games, averaging 2.3 points per game as a freshman and 2.2 points per game as a sophomore. At 6-foot-8, 255 pounds, Thomas has a decent looking shot and the bulk to score inside, but has yet to show enough explosiveness or craftiness to finish around the rim.
3. Which young players will make their mark?
While the Badgers will need several of their veterans to make the jump into being major contributors, there are also several freshmen that Wisconsin fans are excited to see on the floor.
The Badgers will enter the season with six freshmen on the roster, including redshirt freshmen Aleem Ford and Michael Ballard. Ford, a 6-foot-8 forward who was a teammate of Trice at IMG Academy in 2015-16, will likely develop into a rotation player, but it’s unclear how many minutes will be out there for him this year.
The same goes for four-star freshman Nate Reuvers, a 6-foot-10 true freshman who has the inside-out skill-set that the Badgers cover. It’ll be interesting to see what the plan is for Reuvers this season. The four-star recruit out of Lakeville, Minn. appears to have the skills to play at this level immediately, but it remains to be seen if his body is ready.
The guard position is where the freshmen will really make an impact this year, as Brad Davison, Kobe King and Walt McGrory are all entering the program. A walk-on out of Edina, Minn., McGrory won’t see the floor this year, but Davison and King should see plenty of time in a depleted backcourt that lost Koenig, Showalter and Hill.
Davison and King both enter the program as highly-touted recruits who fans expect to see on the floor immediately. Neither dimmed those expectations during the August trip to New Zealand and Australia. Davison and King were right in the thick of the rotation, and both produced. Davison was fourth on the team with 11.2 points per game, while King was fifth with 9.2 points per game.
The duo also showed their worth in a number of other facets of the game. Davison was the primary ball handler behind Trice, running the show while also having the ball in his hands in key moments. The four-star recruit showed a willingness to take over, scoring eight straight points down the stretch to help Wisconsin hold off the Sydney Kings on Aug. 22. Davison scored a team-high 23 points against the Kings.
At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Davison appears to be ready to play immediately in the Big Ten. He enters the program with the reputation of a hard-nosed leader, having been a four-year captain at Maple Grove, Minn.
King joins Wisconsin after a standout senior season in which he was named Wisconsin’s Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year while leading La Crosse Central to its first state championship since 1925.
The three-star recruit primarily played off the ball during the New Zealand trip. At 6-foot-4, 203 pounds, King brings a bouncy athleticism to the floor. That showed on defense and on the offensive boards in New Zealand, as King continually attacked the glass and found second-chance points. King also showed the ability to score in numerous ways, including from behind the arc, which the Badgers will need this season.
While the deep crop of freshmen will develop into Wisconsin’s leaders over the next several years, they will also be tasked with contributing this season. Davison and King will be counted on the most, joining a backcourt that will likely also include Trice and Pritzl.
It won’t be every game, because it’s never easy to adjust to major Division I basketball, but both should have their moments as the season progresses. If at least one of them develops into a steady hand in the backcourt, it will go a long way in Wisconsin making its 20th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Badgers have a lot of questions to answer heading into this season, but if the past is any indication, expect big things from Wisconsin.