The story goes that Wisconsin shows up year-in and year-out and does the same thing; slows the ball down, plays defense, compiles wins and reaches the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
While some people somehow use that as a way to disparage the Badgers, that’s not a bad reputation to have. However, the story is a little bit different this year, as a largely unproven Wisconsin team enters the 2017-18 season looking to make an impression.
So, let’s dig into the three main storylines surrounding the Wisconsin men’s basketball program this season.
Will the Badgers continue their streak of 19 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and 16 straight top-four finishes in the Big Ten?
It’s been a running theme in the college basketball community that you shouldn’t bet against Wisconsin. Pencil them into the NCAA Tournament and the top four in the Big Ten Conference and leave it at that. And why not? The Badgers have checked both of those boxes off for the last 16 seasons, while making every NCAA Tournament dating back to 1999.
Wisconsin’s streak of 19 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances is tied with Gonzaga for fifth all-time. The Zags have also made every tournament since 1999. Another tournament berth this season would make Wisconsin just the fifth team in history to qualify for 20 straight tournaments.
Kansas holds the longest all-time streak at 28, participating in every tournament dating back to 1990. North Carolina qualified for 27 consecutive tournaments from 1975 through 2001, while Duke has reached every tournament since 1996 and Michigan State has competed every year since 1998.
With the exception of a national title, Wisconsin has been competing with the blue bloods for almost two full decades. The Badgers have also been consistently fighting atop the Big Ten, having at least tied for fourth in the conference for 16 straight seasons dating back to 2002. Wisconsin has won at least a share of four regular-season Big Ten titles during that time period, to go along with winning three conference tournament championships.
Wisconsin has always found a way to keep marching along, although the Badgers have rarely had this many questions entering a season. The 2015-16 season also opened with a lot of uncertainty after Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan departed after back-to-back Final Four runs.
However, the Badgers were led by veteran coach Bo Ryan and had a couple of “next-men up” in Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, who were expected to develop into two of the better players in the Big Ten. In the end, the questions were valid that year, as the Badgers started the season 9-9, including 1-4 in Big Ten play. Ryan retired with Wisconsin reeling in the middle of December and Greg Gard took over on an interim basis.
Then the switch flipped, as the Badgers made some adjustments and won 11 of their final 13 regular-season games to rally and earn a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin eventually reached the Sweet 16 and finished with a 22-13 record.
With that experience under their belt, how will the Badgers adapt if things don’t go smoothly through the first couple months of the 2017-18 season? Gard has been with the program for years and brings stability from all of Wisconsin’s recent success. Furthermore, Wisconsin has developed a winning mindset and reputation, and those teams regularly seem to come out on top in college basketball.
Can the Badgers replace one of the better senior classes in school history?
I’m already tired of this one already, but if you’re putting together a list of Wisconsin basketball storylines heading into the 2017-18 season, it has to be in there.
I’m going to keep this one shorter — because it’s been covered here, and here, and here — but it comes down to how the Badgers will replace the highly-productive group of Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes, Jordan Hill, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter. That group helped lead the Badgers to a Big Ten title, back-to-back Final Fours and back-to-back Sweet 16s, while helping Wisconsin transition through the loss of Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Bo Ryan.
Wisconsin will need a similar group to step up and lead the Badgers through another transition this season. It starts with Ethan Happ, who is the unquestioned go-to guy after two very productive seasons. The 6-foot-10 junior has started every game in his career and is coming off a first-team all-Big Ten season in which he averaged 14.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game while also being named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Behind Happ, everyone will be asked to step up, starting with D’Mitrik Trice and Khalil Iverson, who earned plenty of playing time last year. At least two of the junior trio of Alex Illikainen, Charles Thomas IV and Andy Van Vliet will need to step up in the frontcourt, while Brevin Pritzl will see a heavy increase in minutes at shooting guard. It’ll also be interesting to see what the Badgers get out of freshmen Brad Davison, Aleem Ford, Kobe King and Nate Reuvers.
Changing rotations throughout the year
Wisconsin typically rolls out the same starting five every game and doesn’t make too many adjustments once the season starts. That may not be the case this time around.
Having so many unproven players on the roster likely means the Badgers are in for some lineup shuffling as the young, inexperienced guys go through their ups and downs. Guys like Happ and Trice should be entrenched in the starting lineup, but it’s possible everyone else is shuffled around as the coaching staff attempts to figure out what works best.
The Badgers got a head start with an August trip to New Zealand and Australia, getting 10 practices and five exhibition games under their belt before the school year began. The offseason trip came at the perfect time for a Wisconsin team that was going to take some time to come together.
Some of the wrinkles will be straightened out by the time the season opens in early November, but it’s going to take much of the season for the Badgers to truly find their groove.
It’ll be interesting to see what iterations the Badgers take this year. Will they surround Happ with 3-point shooters? Go big to supplement Happ? Play a guard-heavy lineup that looks to attack the paint? Or put their best defensive lineup on the floor and rely on the system to get them points?
These are questions that the Badgers don’t typically face, and it’ll be fun to see how they go about answering them this season. Overall, the Badgers will probably look a lot like they have the past couple of years, but it’ll be interesting to see how they get that done and how quickly it takes shape.