The 2018-’19 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2018-’19 season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local “insider” who covers said team.
“I’m still waiting for perfection,” Bo Ryan said. “In the meantime, I’ll settle for persistence”.
The Wisconsin Badgers have not only been one of the most “persistent” programs in the Big Ten over the last two decades, but in all of the country.
Bo Ryan, never got his “perfect” season, but he spoiled Badgers fans during his tenure. Despite infrequently landing big-name recruits, Wisconsin found a way to regularly outplay teams who were supposedly filled with more flashy, athletic players.
The primary reason for these performances?
Bo Ryan’s impressive player development.
Ryan manufactured some of the best teams in program history, most notably the 32-3 Badgers of the 2014-’15 season. It’s tough to argue against the Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker-led team who knocked off an undefeated Kentucky team in the Final Four. Bo Ryan’s methodology was highlighted by a swing offense, high percentage free throw shooting, and overwhelming three-point production.
It was a logical choice to allow Greg Gard to stick around once Ryan retired in the middle of the 2015-’16 season. The athletic department had no desires of altering their brand of basketball. Gard had coached alongside Ryan for 23 years before he stepped into the interim head coaching role.
So, the hope was that Gard would keep the train rolling. That is exactly what Gard did for the remainder of the 2015-’16 season and the entire 2016-’17 season. Wisconsin made it to the Sweet 16 both seasons. The only underlying disappointments in each season was that it seemed like the Badgers could have made it further into March.
Slightly underachieving became a concern of the past last season when the Badgers failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 seasons. Putting a winning team on the floor then became the main priority.
Let’s take an in-depth look on where the Badgers stand and how likely it is that they find themselves playing in March once again.
1. 2017-’18 Season Performance
- Record: 15-18 (7-11)
- KenPom Team Rating: #70
- RPI Rating: #113
- Postseason Appearance: None
Wisconsin lost a magnitude of production heading into the 2017-’18 season.
Three of the Badgers’ four leading scorers in Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, and Zak Showalter graduated prior to the season. The three players combined for 53.9 percent of Wisconsin’s scoring. Not to mention fifth leading scorer, Vitto Brown, was gone as well.
These core players didn’t only provide Wisconsin with consistent production, but also with an incredible level of experience. Koenig, Hayes, Showalter, and Brown each reached a pair of Final 4s and Sweet 16s during their time in Madison.
Still, even though it was apparent that the Badgers were faced with a legitimate rebuild, the sub-.500 finish wasn’t anticipated.
This is because, within Wisconsin’s prestigious 19-year NCAA Tournament streak, the program obviously had to work its way through a number of transition seasons.
The Badgers always had a solution. However, for the first time in a while, they did not. This truly marked the 2017-’18 season as the end of a long-lasting era.
The struggles and bad breaks began during Wisconsin’s hefty non-conference schedule. The Badgers had plenty of opportunities to gain resume-building wins over ranked opponents early on.
Most of those key games could have gone either way. Particularly when the Badgers lost to No. 22 Baylor by five and No. 23 UCLA by two the following evening. Regardless, Gard’s squad went 0-4 against ranked teams in non-conference play.
Coming out victorious in a few of those games could have altered how the entire season played out. Moral victories don’t mean anything for a team with as much recent success as Wisconsin has had. The effects of those losses lingered for the entire season.
Wisconsin found themselves in a hole early on. A youthful roster was held responsible for attempting to dig the Badgers out of that hole. This is something they could not do.
The Badgers lost four of their first six Big Ten games, which made the hole grow even deeper.
The Badgers’ chance of having success dwindled further as Big Ten play continued. After beating Illinois to improve to an even 10-10 on the season, Wisconsin lost six consecutive conference games. This deflated the morale of Greg Gard’s team entirely.
The Badgers finally seemed to figure things out at the end of the year, but it was simply too late.
Wisconsin won four of six games to conclude the season, with the two losses coming by a combined eight points to No. 2 Michigan State.
The competitive losses to the Spartans as well as a signature upset over no. 6 Purdue exemplified what the future could hold for the Badgers’ young core.
But, The late surge didn’t mean much in terms of postseason aspirations considering how Wisconsin played for the majority of the season.
In addition to youth and inexperience, injuries also plagued the Badgers last season.
Ethan Happ was the only player with significant starting experience heading into the 2017-’18 season. Though it was a guarantee that the star forward would be leaned on heavily, crucial injuries to Brad Davison, D’Mitrik Trice, and Kobe King forced Gard to rely on Happ more than he would have liked to.
Davidson actually finished the season as the Badgers’ second leading scorer with an average of 12.1 points per game. The freshman guard was the only player other than Happ to average in double figures.
But, Davidson played the majority of the season through a lingering shoulder injury. The determination and grittiness was incredible to see from a freshman. Davidson still put up pretty impressive numbers after the injury as well.
The freshman’s constant pain was visible in plain sight though. You could see him wincing habitually throughout games. If Davison were healthy, it’s obvious he would have been able to contribute even more than he did.
Scoring was a major concern for the team from Madison all season long. The Badgers averaged only 66.6 points per game as a team, the 316th best out of 351 D1 teams.
Even though the young team maintained the impressive defense it featured a season ago, lengthy scoring droughts tormented Wisconsin often.
Wisconsin didn’t have many consistent scoring options besides Happ. Players such as Alex Illikainen needed to step up, and they didn’t. Illikainen virtually disappeared and only averaged 6.8 minutes per game.
Khalil Iverson and Brevin Pritzl did what they could, but it was far from enough to create an efficient offense.
All in all, Wisconsin’s underclassmen-filled roster was exposed. Injuries destroyed the Badgers from a depth perspective, and the consequences were encountered.
2. Offseason Exits
Thankfully for the Badgers, this will be a short section. Wisconsin virtually lost nothing from last season. In fact, forward Andy Van Vliet is the most significant contributor the Badgers lost. Van Vliet only averaged 3.4 points and 7.7 minutes played per game last season.
Other than Van Vliet, Wisconsin will be without Aaron Moesch, T.J. Schlundt, and Matt Ferris. All of which averaged 1.2 points or less per game last season and never made an impact.
3. New Additions
While Greg Gard gladly brings back nearly his entire team from last season, he was also able to add a few players who are capable of contributing.
Out of all of Wisconsin’s incoming players, redshirt sophomore guard Trevor Anderson has the greatest chance of making an immediate impact. Anderson transferred to Madison from UW-Green Bay prior to last season, but had to sit out all of last year in compliance with NCAA transfer rules.
The Badgers’ biggest problem last season was scoring, which is what Anderson specialized in during his freshman season with the Phoenix.
The Wisconsin native started 20 games in the 2016-’17 season and averaged 9.8 points per game as well as 2.7 assists. Anderson’s season was cut short by a back injury before he decided to take his talents to Madison
The 6’2 guard set a career-high in scoring when he dropped 23 points and converted 5-8 three-point attempts against SIU Edwardsville.
Anderson also shot over 80 percent from the free throw line as a member of the Phoenix and was a 37.6 percent three-point shooter. The guard averaged 1.8 converted threes per game two seasons ago, a mark that would have tied him for first on Wisconsin with Brad Davison last season.
The stable free throw and three point shooting will allow Anderson to mesh into Gard’s system perfectly.
Wisconsin also welcomes a trio of three star recruits in Tai Strickland, Taylor Currie, and Joe Hedstrom. Strickland’s last name might ring a bell. The guard is the son of 17-year NBA guard Rod Strickland. The young Strickland chose Wisconsin over DePaul, his father’s alma mater, as well as Minnesota, Rutgers, and a hand full of other D1 programs.
Currie, a power forward, brings some noticeable size to the Badgers’ roster. Currie is listed at 6’8, 200 pounds. His size and rebounding capabilities attracted a lot of Big Ten programs. Although, Wisconsin was the only school to dish the power forward a scholarship besides Xavier.
Currie was listed as the 44th best incoming power forward in his class. He is a little raw, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the forward decided to redshirt. If not, Currie will see some minutes if he can exemplify that he is truly ready for the college level. Regardless, Currie’s presence in the paint will be key in years to come for Wisconsin
Hedstrom is a center who flew under the radar during his recruiting process. Rivals ranked the 6’10 center as a three star recruit. However, he went unnoticed by 247 and ESPN. Of course, he brings size to the Badgers’ lineup as well. The Minnesota native was recruited by Rick Pitino, but the Gophers lost interest in the center at one point or another. Hedstrom received nine total scholarship offers, eight of which came from mid-major programs.
And while Hedstrom is a long shot to find his way into Wisconsin’s rotation as a freshman, his big body could get him into the lineup somewhere down the line.
4. Points of Optimism
Expectations for Gard’s squad to bounce back and start a new streak are relatively high as the 2018-’19 season swiftly approaches.
Even though Wisconsin was not even close to being considered by the selection committee, the Badgers were only four or five wins away from being a bubble team when you take their conference and 32nd ranked SOS into consideration.
Given that Wisconsin returns its entire team from last year and also added a few solid players, it’s difficult to imagine this team not improving. Of course, with so many players returning, the team should be more mature and have more experience playing with one another.
Additionally, Happ’s decision to forego the NBA Draft and return to Madison for his senior year gives this team the leader it needs. Last season, the forward struggled to transition into a role where he was garnered all of the attention from opposing teams.
Still, Happ averaged 17.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. And now, Happ will be much more accustomed to the frequent double and triple teams that coincide with being Wisconsin’s best player.
Happ will most likely improve and once again has the opportunity to be an All-American. In addition, other players will be more capable of being depended on when Happ is being shut down by the opposition.
Having Davison and Trice fully healthy will immediately provide the Badgers with a boost as well, especially scoring wise. Don’t expect a Wisconsin team that scores under 70 as much as they did last season. The defense should also be strong once again. If anything, the defense should be even better seeing as that Wisconsin will have an increased level of on-court chemistry.
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the Badgers heading into this season. It’s a team loaded with experience that should be able to build off the hot finish to last year.
5. Points of Concern
As previously mentioned, other players should be much more capable of stepping up to the plate when Happ isn’t producing compared to last season.
But, the question is, to what extent?
Though it’s tough to contain a player like Happ for the majority of a game, it happens. Happ is human. This is especially true when teams are able to key in on the Badger big man. This was a common sight during last season for the team. In every marquee matchup Wisconsin has next season, teams will fully concentrate on containing Happ.
It will happen often, but the Badgers can’t bank on Happ scoring 20 points every game. They need to know how to win when Happ is struggling.
This is why the level of play from Davison, Trice, and Iverson is just as important in some circumstances as how Happ plays. They will be counted on to carry the team when Happ isn’t capable of doing so. And same with Brevin Pritzl when he is feeling his outside shot.
Wisconsin’s ability to convert shots from beyond the arc on a consistent basis is something to watch as well.
Possessing numerous players who can light it up from three have been simultaneous to the Badgers’ success in recent seasons. However, last season, Wisconsin ranked 244th in the NCAA with a 33.5 percent conversion rate from three.
The Badgers won’t be capable of overwhelming a team with size and points in the paint. So, they will need to capitalize from three.
Anderson will definitely help here. Brevin Pritzl has shown that he can light it up from three, but he needs to be more consistent. Pritzl, Davison, and Alleem Ford were the only Badgers last season to shoot at least 35 percent from three.
Abandoning the three altogether if things aren’t going well will rarely result in wins for Wisconsin. We witnessed that last year when smaller guards forced shots in the paint and rarely found the bottom of the net.
6. Top Player
It isn’t even necessary to clarify who this is. As much as other players will need to do their part, this team lives and dies on Ethan Happ for the most part. If Happ wasn’t returning, improvements to this extent from Wisconsin wouldn’t be expected.
The frequent double and triple teams Happ attracts also makes his teammates better and provides them with more open looks.
Happ has the opportunity to top Frank Kaminsky for the best forward in Badger history over the last decade.
The forward was selected to the preseason All-Big Ten team as well as NBC Sports’ preseason All-American third team. Happ has been All-Big Ten in each of his last two seasons and was a third team All-American member two seasons ago.
7. 2018-’19 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/2 - UW-Oshkosh (Ex.)
- 11/6 - Coppin State
- 11/13 - at Xavier (Cincinnati, OH)
- 11/17 - Houston Baptist
- 11/21 - Stanford (Paradise Island, Bahamas)
- 11/22 - Florida/Oklahoma (Paradise Island, Bahamas)
- 11/23 - Butler/Dayton/MTSU/Virginia (Paradise Island, Bahamas)
- 11/27 - NC State
- 11/30 - at Iowa
- 12/3 - Rutgers
- 12/8 - at Marquette
- 12/13 - Savannah State
- 12/22 - Grambling State
- 12/29 - at Western Kentucky
- 1/3 - Minnesota
- 1/6 - at Penn State
- 1/11 - Purdue
- 1/14 - at Maryland
- 1/19 - Michigan
- 1/23 - at Illinois
- 1/26 - Northwestern
- 1/29 - at Nebraska
- 2/1 - Maryland
- 2/6 - at Minnesota
- 2/9 - at Michigan
- 2/12 - Michigan State
- 2/18 - Illinois
- 2/23 - at Northwestern
- 2/26 - at Indiana
- 3/2 - Penn State
- 3/7 - Iowa
- 3/10 - at Ohio State
Per usual, the Wisconsin Badgers will be tasked with a relatively difficult non-conference schedule. From first glance, the team looks like it has an easier non-conference schedule than last season. Wisconsin only projects to play against one ranked team during their non-conference slate. Of course, this depends partly on how the Battle 4 Atlantis plays out.
In comparison, the Badgers played four ranked non-conference opponents last season. Regardless, Wisconsin still will face a number of solid opponents that should not be overlooked. Coppin State, Houston Baptist, Savannah State, and Grambling state are the only cupcake games the Badgers will be handed within their 11-game non-conference schedule. Savannah State ranked the highest of any of those teams in the RPI last season at 199. The other three sat in the mid-200s or worse.
Other than those games, however, the Badgers will have to battle to earn each and every non-conference win.
Wisconsin gets right into the thick of things by playing Xavier to continue a recently established rivalry. The Musketeers had the fourth highest RPI last season. But, unlike Wisconsin, Xavier has lost the majority of its contributors from its Sweet 16 run last season.
Wisconsin-Xavier will still be a game to keep an eye on though. The matchup is supposed to be played at a neutral site, but considering that it will be held in Cincinnati, the Musketeers will basically be given a home game. This will make pulling out a victory a bit more difficult for the Badgers.
Marquette will also be an intriguing game given the Golden Eagles’ scoring capabilities and that it will be played away from Madison as well.
But, I really have my eyes on the Battle 4 Atlantis and what that could do for Wisconsin. If all goes well for the Badgers in the preseason tournament, they could return to Madison with a few signature victories.
Wisconsin will face Stanford in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis. The Cardinal will be without two of their best players from last season’s 19-win campaign. Leading scorer Reid Travis transferred to Kentucky and 14.5 point per game scorer Dorian Pickens graduated.
The Cardinal will still be dangerous considering they welcome back two talented sophomores in Daejon Davis and Kezie Okpala. Stanford also has brought in three four-star recruits.
The competition only increases from then on for Gard’s squad in the Bahamas. Wisconsin will then play either Florida or Oklahoma in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Both the Gators and Sooners finished last season within the top 55 of the RPI.
Then, Wisconsin could matchup with fifth ranked Virginia in the Battle 4 Atlantis. The Badgers would most likely have to make the championship in order to play the Cavaliers. If this ends up being the case, Wisconsin will have a chance to pick up its biggest non-conference win since beating no. 13 Florida in the second game of the 2013-’14 season.
A logical prediction would be that Wisconsin emerges from its non-conference slate with a 7-4 record. To give more detail, it’s safe to assume the Badgers go 4-0 in their heavily favored games, and then 3-4 in the tossups.
The Badgers will be presented with more than enough potential status-solidifying victories to begin the season. Whether they take advantage or not, everything will boil down to conference play.
As is always the case, Big Ten play will be an absolute battle. With that being said, the Badgers have to feel pretty fortunate that they only have to play Michigan State and Purdue once. Both of those games will be played at the Kohl Center in Madison as well.
Additionally, Wisconsin dodged having to play Nebraska twice. Tim Miles’ group is poised to put together its best program in school history. Traveling to Lincoln will be extremely difficult, but I’m sure Greg Gard isn’t complaining about only having to play the Cornhuskers once. However, the Badgers will have to play Michigan twice. Finding a way to split those two games will be key for Wisconsin, especially because they were granted with a workable schedule.
To briefly glance at the Badgers’ conference slate in order, don’t be surprised if Wisconsin wins its first four Big Ten games to begin conference play.
This all goes down to whether or not the Badgers can sneak away with a win in Iowa to kick things off. The Hawkeyes will still face a plethora of issues, especially defensively, after going 4-14 in the Big Ten last season.
But, we are all aware that Iowa tends to play Wisconsin tough in Iowa City. Following the Iowa game, the Badgers then head home to play Rutgers and Minnesota before heading to Penn State. All of which are extremely winnable games.
It is vital to Wisconsin’s Big Ten success that they win those games. That is because Gard’s squad then has a tough three-game stretch against Purdue, Michigan, and Maryland.
It’s safe to assume the Badgers start out conference play with a 4-3 record.
Wisconsin will go back and forth between wins and losses from then on, with nothing guaranteed. If the Badgers can sweep the season series from Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, and Penn State, they should be able to finish from 10-9 to 11-8 in conference play.
And even if they don’t Wisconsin still has the opportunity to snatch a win from Indiana or Maryland, evening that prediction out.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
F: Ethan Happ (Sr.) - 95%
F: Nate Reuvers (So.) - 85%
G: Brad Davison (So.) - 95%
G: Khalil Iverson (Sr.) - 95%
G: D’Mitrik Trice (Rs So.) - 95%
(Percentage likelihood of starting.)
Davison and Trice are fully healthy and should be two of the three biggest backcourt helps to Ethan Happ this coming season. The other player being Khalil Iverson, who failed to have the breakout campaign last season that was expected from him.
Iverson improved in both scoring and rebounding from his sophomore season. However, many expected him to contribute more than 8.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. And frankly, the athletic guard was capable of doing much more. If Iverson can finally come into his own Wisconsin will sport a pretty impressive three-headed backcourt monster.
Trice displayed noticeable improvements before he went down with a season-ending injury 10 games into the season. The guard scored at least 10 in half of the games he played last season.
Davidson still managed to score in double figures in nine of Wisconsin’s last 10 games last season in spite of a nagging injury. That included a masterful 30-point outing against Michigan State that almost carried the Badgers to a monumental upset. If the sophomore stays healthy, he’ll be a consistent high-score and keen defender for Greg Gard.
Aleem Ford’s presence would have resulted in Reuver’s starting spot being a little up in the air. Ford started 20 games as a redshirt freshman last season, giving the underclassman some vital experience. However, with Ford’s recent injury, who knows when he will be ready to play.
Ford’s knee injury is expected to sideline him until the later stages of the season. The temporary loss of the sophomore forward takes a shot at Wisconsin’s depth. It also should create more opportunities for Charlie Thomas, or even Alex Illikainen to earn more playing time. Ford averaged 5.8 points per game in his freshman season and scored in double figures on six occasions.
Ford evidently had an opportunity to contribute. But, even if Ford didn’t go down, I’m a Nate Reuvers believer.
Reuvers, who was a true freshman last season, simply has more upside than Ford though. Ford was unsuccessful in proving to Gard that he can be more of an asset to the team than Reuvers. He clearly possesses more potential in both the scoring and rebounding departments. With some minutes now under his belt, Gard will be confiding in rolling with Reuvers, and will attempt to mold him into the player he envisioned when recruiting him.
Brevin Pritzl will be one of Gard’s top options off the bench. Pritzl has the potential to see a lot of minutes considering his ability from beyond the arc. Freshmen Taylor Currie and Tai Strickland, along with transfer Trevor Anderson all should find their way into the rotation sooner or later as well.
Anderson was mentioned earlier, and he’ll be another solid option off the bench, especially scoring wise. Sophomore Kobe King completes what should be a talented trio of backup guards.
King played in all of Wisconsin’s first 10 games last season before suffering a knee injury which ended his freshman campaign. The guard’s role was increasing game-by-game before he was hurt.
King played at least 20 minutes in the last five games he played, compared to less than 20 in the first five. His scoring average increased from 4.4 points per game to six when collating both halves.
Now healthy, King’s athleticism and potential will immediately earn the former four-star recruit valuable playing time.
9. Team Perspective from Thomas Beindit
“By any reasonable measure, Wisconsin wasn’t a great team last year. The Badgers went 15-18 and failed to make the NIT. And to make matters even worse, Wisconsin lost two of its last three games, including a tough loss at home to the Spartans.
However, it’s worth noting that the team improved substantially throughout the season. The Badgers bottomed out in February, but clawed back to grab some nice wins down the stretch. TRank also liked how Wisconsin finished, indicating that the Badgers performed at or near a top 25 level for the last 10 games or so of the season. That might not seem that noteworthy, but it’s pretty remarkable for a team that finished with a losing record.
And Wisconsin will now try to build off that strong finish to last season. The team returns virtually every contributor from last season, including Brad Davison in the backcourt and Ethan Happ in the frontcourt. The team is 19th in KenPom’s preseason rankings and for good reason. There’s a great mix of depth and experience on the roster.
The major questions will simply be whether Wisconsin can keep the momentum going and how far the team can take it this season. The Badgers could very well turn into a Big Ten title contender if things go right. However, if players don’t take those next steps, watch out for another underwhelming year.” - Thomas Beindit.
10. Overall Season Outlook
The bar this season won’t be set as high as it was in Bo Ryan’s final few seasons. Nonetheless, hopes will still be high in Madison for the Badgers to find their way back into the field of 68. The result of last season may have honestly seemed worse than it was only because of the expectations that have become of this program over the last two decades.
Wisconsin lost nine games by single digits last season. If it could have pulled out half of said games, it would have at least been close to extending its NCAA Tournament streak to 20.
If the Badgers possessed the experience they have right now last season, they most likely would have won around 18-20 games. In other words, Wisconsin’s current roster will have less trouble translating heartbreaking defeats into nail-biting victories compared to last season.
In addition to a lack of maturity, an inconsistent offense stripped the Badgers from an opportunity to put a productive team on the floor last season as well. This season, the offense will be much improved and much more consistent.
Pairing that with a fundamentally sound, staggering defensive unit will keep the 2018-’19 Wisconsin Badgers in nearly every game they play. Not to mention the greater chemistry this team should possess will bode them well down the stretch.
There is little reason to believe that the Badgers won’t be one of the most improved teams in the Big Ten.
Big Ten Prediction: 6th
(Please note: Final Big Ten predictions come from Thomas Beindit.)