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2019-’20 Wisconsin Badgers Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Wisconsin Badgers and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2019-’20 season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-San Jose Practice Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-’20 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-’20 ‘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.

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If you’re a frequent person on social media, you’ve probably come to learn that there are a series of recurring jokes in college sports. The faces and names may change, but the gist of the joke is generally the same. We see a lot of these pop up in March once the more “casual” fans show up.

One of the more frequently used jokes of the last few years has been quipping about how long it seems like certain players have been on a team. We heard a lot of this with Aaron Craft at Ohio State and Perry Ellis at Kansas. It’s usually something that gets tagged to players that see the court early and often.

This offseason, Wisconsin lost one of the players that fit squarely into that category. Ethan Happ has been a mainstay for the Badgers over the last four seasons, leading the team to three NCAA Tournament appearances and two top 25 finishes on KenPom. Notably, Happ finished in the top 10 in KenPom’s national player rankings during his final three seasons with the program and received All-Big Ten honors in four seasons.

Yeah, he was pretty good.

And it’s hard to undersell just how important Happ was for the team. He played 78.6 percent of the team’s minutes last season and ranked eighth nationally in possessions used when on the floor. Those are ridiculous numbers for a big man, especially on a team that finished 16th on KenPom and made the NCAA Tournament. He also did it with no three-point game to speak of, failing to make a single attempt last season.

There’s no debating it was a remarkable career. Happ might not have reached the heights of players like Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, but his individual career was every bit as good. And the Badgers must now face the reality of moving on without him this season. How Wisconsin responds to that challenge is going to dictate this season, for better or worse.

The good news for Badger fans is that virtually everyone but Happ will be returning for this season. D’Mitrik Trice and Brevin Pritzl return in the backcourt, Kobe King returns on the wing, and Nate Reuvers is back as well. Wisconsin is also adding a few roster additions as well. And considering that Wisconsin finished 16th nationally on KenPom and was just a few buckets from being right with Michigan State for the league title, that’s a pretty good situation.

The tricky part is that it’s hard to tell what to make of the returners. As mentioned, Happ dominated the team’s offensive possessions and was a fantastic defender. The only player to receive any All-Big Ten honors other than Happ was Trice and he only made the honorable mention squad. That means the media and coaches thought there were at least 15 players better than him in the league and likely more, given the size of the honorable mention group. Lacking a proven returning star isn’t an encouraging sign.

So, what should fans expect? Can the Badgers overcome the loss of Happ and keep things rolling in Madison this season? Let’s take a look.

1. 2018-’19 Season Performance

  • Record: 23-11 (14-6)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #16
  • NET Rating: #20
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (R64)

Heading into last season, there was a lot of concern about Wisconsin and where the program could be heading under Greg Gard’s leadership. Despite the fact that his tenure started with two 20-win seasons and two trips to the Sweet 16, many were still skeptical of him as Wisconsin’s head coach. He was winning games, but it was hard to separate his success from the holdovers of the Bo Ryan era. And when Wisconsin took a massive step back in 2017-’18 and finished with a losing record, the critics got louder. Gard wasn’t on the hot seat, but it wasn’t hard to see the pressure that he would feel if things didn’t go well during the 2018-’19 season.

Fortunately for Gard and Badger fans, things did go well last season. The Badgers ended up putting together a 23-11 overall record, a 14-6 mark in Big Ten play, and made it back to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in Gard’s four years with the program. Wisconsin was also remarkably consistent, losing to just one team outside the top 100 on KenPom and just two teams outside the top 50 all season.

Perhaps the only major misstep of Wisconsin’s performance last season was getting slotted in to play Oregon in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Ducks were a really hot low seed and were just a few buckets away from taking down eventual national champion Virginia to make the Elite Eight. If Wisconsin moves up or down even one spot in the seeding, perhaps the team goes deep in the NCAAs. Sometimes, you just get the short end of the stick.

All told, it was a solid season for the Badgers. It wasn’t one that will go down in the history of the program, but there isn’t all that much to complain about. Wisconsin was a good team and got back on track after a misstep. That’s certainly encouraging for Gard’s future with the program.

Highlights of the season included non-conference wins over North Carolina State and Oklahoma, conference wins over Iowa, Maryland, and Michigan, and a win over Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament. Low points of the season included the loss to Western Kentucky on the road, losses to rivals Marquette and Minnesota, and the upset loss against Oregon in the NCAA Tournament.

Individual statistical leaders were Ethan Happ, Nate Reuvers, and D’Mitrick Trice. Happ led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, usage among contributors, and total win shares. Reuvers led the team in blocks. Trice led the team in minutes.

2. Offseason Exits

From a sheer numbers perspective, Wisconsin didn’t get hit that hard with attrition this offseason. The Badgers ended up only losing three players from last year’s roster, which is pretty remarkable for a group that finished 16th nationally on KenPom. Unfortunately, those departures were from Ethan Happ, Khalil Iverson, and Charles Thomas. As such, Wisconsin will have its hands full trying to replace them.

The biggest departure of the group is certainly Happ. I touched on him above, but he was an asbolutely massive contributor for the Badgers last season. He finished second nationally in KenPom’s player of the year rankings and finished eighth nationally in usage rate. He played a ton and contributed when on the floor. Happ was also a solid rebounder, passer, and defender. He really could do it all.

Iverson and Thomas both played a lot as well, but neither was even close to the player Happ was last season. Iverson played the most of the two, starting more than 30 games. He was one of the better defenders in the league and also did a decent job inside the paint. Thomas was a reliable backup behind Happ.

Replacing a player like Happ in a single offseason is borderline impossible. He was not only one of the better Badger players of late, but he was one of the most productive players in the Big Ten in modern history. Badger fans will miss him dearly this season and beyond. The good news is that virtually everyone returns around him.

3. New Additions

This season, the Badgers will be adding one new recruit, two walk-ons, and a transfer. The recruit is Tyler Wahl, who is rated as a three-star prospect by 247Sports and is listed as a small forward. The walk-on additions are Courtland Cuevas and Samad Qawi.

As noted above, Wahl is the only recruiting addition with a profile of note. He is listed at 6-foot-7 and 200 pounds and should be able to provide depth on the wing. Wahl received a lot of attention in the midwest as a prospect, including offers from Butler, Iowa State, and Minnesota among others. Few expect him to contribute right away. The same can be said for the walk-on additions as well.

The transfer addition is Micah Potter. He was technically around last season as well, but was a mid-year transfer. As such, he will have to sit out games in November and December before gaining eligibility in January. Potter formerly played for Ohio State and has gotten chatter as the team’s best player coming into the year. Fans will have to wait some time to see whether that’s true, but there’s no denying Potter is a significant addition.

Overall, this is a pretty small group of newcomers. However, that’s to be expected considering the Badgers only lost three players this offseason. It’s also worth mentioning that Gard and his staff were recruiting a number of transfers that they missed out on, notably the Hauser brothers. As such, that explains that small class.

4. Points of Optimism

Fair or not, Wisconsin enters this season with arguably its most skeptical preseason projections in at least the last 15 years. Part of that is because the program has set such a high bar during that time, but it’s also because many are hesitant to buy into a team without its All-American big man down low.

But despite that skepticism, there are some reasons to be optimistic about this team entering this season. This team not only returns a boatload from an NCAA Tournament squad, but has a nice group of potential breakout contributors. And of course, Wisconsin also has a pretty good reputation for player development and defying expectations.

Let’s start with the obvious. Wisconsin loses Happ, but just about everybody else returns. D’Mitrik Trice and Brevin Pritzl return in the backcourt, Aleem Ford and Nate Reuvers return upfront, and depth options like Brad Davison and Kobe King are also back. Every single one of those players have experience and have played in big games before. That’s a pretty good core to build around heading into a season.

And don’t forget, Wisconsin was a really good team last year. The Badgers got upset in the NCAA Tournament, but the team finished 16th nationally on KenPom and simply got a bad draw against a red hot Oregon team in the Big Dance. These returners have all contributed before on a winning team. That makes things look even better.

The Badgers also have a number of potential breakout players. Perhaps the clearest picks in this regard are Reuvers and Trice, who both showed some really encouraging signs last year. Neither was a legitimate All-Big Ten option, but the potential was there. If these two can continue trending up, Wisconsin could become a pretty dangerous group.

And even if there is no proven star power on the roster, it’s important to view this team in its proper context. Wisconsin has routinely entered seasons over the last 20 years without elite talent and without proven star power and delivered. Yes, Bo Ryan isn’t around anymore, but the Badgers have a proven system and a history of developing talent. If you’re going to bank on a team to figure things out, it’s probably Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has its work cut out to keep things rolling in Madison. With the departure of some key players, things could be challenging. However, don’t underestimate what this team returns and its potential for growth.

5. Points of Concern

If this hasn’t come across by now, it should have. And if not, it needs to be mentioned here. Losing Happ is a big deal for Wisconsin. This isn’t an ordinary loss, or one that the Badgers can hope to overcome with a nice recruit or two. Happ was an absolute monster and a massive contributor on both sides of the floor. Guys like that don’t show up every year.

Some of Happ’s numbers have already been shared in this preview, but they probably don’t even capture just how much he contributed last year. More often than not, the offense ran through Happ. Whether it was him scoring down low, or finding an open player, the ball touched his hands. He was a big man that facilitated offense. A pretty rare feat.

And Happ isn’t the only departure, either. Iverson was also a starter and Thomas was a backup behind Happ. Their departures leave a big void in the team’s offensive production and also leave the team without two key defenders. One also has to wonder about a snowball effect because of these losses. Happ made everyone around him better. What do these players look like without the safety net?

The potential for breakout players is also a double-edged sword with this team. Wisconsin isn’t a young group this year. Most of the players circled for potential breakouts have been around awhile. That’s good and bad. It means they’re experienced, but it also raises questions about how much more they can improve. If a guy has been at a certain level for three years, it seems more likely he will stay there than improve.

Wisconsin fans also have to wonder how the frontcourt will look without Potter for a few months. He clearly seems like a potential starter down low and can the Badgers hold things together long enough for him to gain his eligibility? Reuvers will be tasked with much of this.

There’s little debating that Wisconsin has enough to get back to the NCAA Tournament this year if things fall right. However, the team is certainly going to have to overcome some major challenges to get there. It will be interesting to see how those efforts go.

6. Top Player

For the last few seasons, Wisconsin has had no question with regard to the team’s best player. Happ led the Badgers and played at an exceptionally high level. Perhaps nobody in the Big Ten contributed more to his team since he arrived on campus.

But Happ’s departure now leaves a massive void in the lineup. Who will be the alpha dog this time around?

There are a number of options for the Badgers this year. Unfortunately, none of them are sure-fire bets. Trice and Reuvers seem like the most likely selections given their play last season. However, Trice has struggled with his efficiency and Reuvers has never played massive minutes, barely topping 50 percent of Wisconsin’s minutes last year.

Other darkhorses here are Ford, King, and Potter. All three have showed signs they can be productive in Big Ten play. Potter seems to have the most potential, but won’t be eligible to play early on. King and Ford will need to improve their outside shooting and efficiency if they want to be part of this discussion. It’s anyone’s guess whether that happens. Pritzl is also an option, though it seems unlikely he will have the workload to be the team’s best player this season. He’s a good role player, but a star? We’ll have to see it to believe it.

Trice probably seems like the safest bet given his past contributions. However, he’s another player with the “ceiling” question. Fans will hope a few other players like Reuvers can get into this discussion by season’s end.

7. 2019-’20 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/1 - UW-LA Crosse (Ex.)
  • 11/5 - St. Mary’s (Sioux Falls, SD)
  • 11/8 - Eastern Illinois
  • 11/13 - McNeese State
  • 11/17 - Marquette
  • 11/21 - Green Bay
  • 11/25 - Richmond (Brooklyn, NY)
  • 11/26 - Auburn/New Mexico (Brooklyn, NY)
  • 12/4 - at North Carolina State
  • 12/7 - Indiana
  • 12/11 - at Rutgers
  • 12/21 - Milwaukee
  • 12/28 - at Tennessee
  • 12/31 - Rider
  • 1/3 - at Ohio State
  • 1/8 - Illinois
  • 1/11 - at Penn State
  • 1/14 - Maryland
  • 1/17 - at Michigan State
  • 1/21 - Nebraska
  • 1/24 - at Purdue
  • 1/27 - at Iowa
  • 2/1 - Michigan State
  • 2/5 - at Minnesota
  • 2/9 - Ohio State
  • 2/15 - at Nebraska
  • 2/18 - Purdue
  • 2/23 - Rutgers
  • 2/27 - at Michigan
  • 3/1 - Minnesota
  • 3/4 - Northwestern
  • 3/7 - at Indiana

The Badgers have put together an interesting schedule heading into this season. It’s not quite on the level of some of the other teams in the Big Ten, but there are more than enough marquee opportunities here to get fans excited. If Wisconsin can deliver, it could put together a pretty impressive resume with this slate.

Non-conference play will be highlighted by the home game against Marquette, the road games against NC State and Tennessee, and the neutral games in Brooklyn and against Saint Mary’s. Per KenPom’s preseason rankings, Wisconsin could very well be looking at potentially five games against top 30 opponents from just those games.

To put that slate in perspective, just think about it in comparison to last year’s Big Ten. Despite having one of the strongest leagues nationally, the Big Ten ended up with just five teams in the top 30 on KenPom last season. Wisconsin could play that before even getting into the heart of Big Ten play.

We generally know what to expect out of conference play at this point, but things are really set to get off to a bang in January for the Badgers. Look at this slate of games:

  • 1/3 - at Ohio State
  • 1/8 - Illinois
  • 1/11 - at Penn State
  • 1/14 - Maryland
  • 1/17 - at Michigan State
  • 1/21 - Nebraska
  • 1/24 - at Purdue
  • 1/27 - at Iowa

Five of those eight games will be against teams that made last year’s NCAA Tournament and two of the other three games (Illinois and Penn State) come against top 45 opponents on KenPom. The most difficult games project to be the road games in Columbus, East Lansing, and West Lafayette. The goal there just needs to be survival.

The good news about this schedule is that the vast majority of the games look winnable. Even with the loaded non-conference slate, many of those games come at home or on neutral courts. If the Badgers can use the team’s experience to its advantage, it could really build momentum heading into league play.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: D’Mitrik Trice (Rs. Jr.) - 95%
  • SG: Brad Davison (Jr.) - 65%
  • SF: Kobe King (Rs. So.) - 70%
  • PF: Aleem Ford (Rs. Jr.) - 75%
  • C: Nate Reuvers (Jr.) - 95%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Despite entering this season with mixed expectations, Wisconsin figures to have a pretty stable lineup at season tip-off. That shouldn’t be shocking considering that the team returns four players who started at least a game last year. Wisconsin’s biggest strength on paper certainly appears to be its experience.

The backcourt figures to revolve around three players in Davison, Pritzl, and Trice. Regardless of who actually earns the starting spots, all three will get significant time. My guess is that Davison and Trice start with Pritzl coming off the bench. Davison will grab the minutes at the point when Trice needs to hit the bench. All three should average well north of 20 minutes a game.

On the wing, King and Ford project as the team’s starters. On paper, this looks like the position group with the most uncertainty. Iverson’s departure will open up some minutes and King and Ford are both coming off seasons as underclassmen. The Badgers also welcome Tyler Wahl on campus. In short, if a group is going to breakout and overachieve against expectations, it’s probably here.

Upfront, expect minutes to be split between Potter and Reuvers. However, with Potter out for the time being, Reuvers should dominate things here. Joseph Hedstrom will likely serve in the backup role at this time. Owen Hamilton and Samad Qawi are also options if necessary. Wisconsin will hope Reuvers can play huge minutes like Happ. However, that’s certainly easier said than done.

One thing that should be mentioned here is the team’s depth issues. Wisconsin currently has more than enough to get the job done. However, with Potter sidelined, things are a bit thinner than they would otherwise be. If the team gets hit in a tough spot or two over the next two months, don’t be surprised if someone ends up playing out of position or a walk-on has to be used. It’s just kind of how things will have to work this year.

Wisconsin sits in an interesting position coming into this season. The team has plenty of stability in its starting lineup heading into this season. However, can those starters take enough steps forward? We will have to wait and see.

9. Team Perspective From Bryce Bennett of BTPowerhouse

“I think most people are taking a “wait-and-see” approach with Wisconsin this year. Ethan Happ was so important to everything they did the past couple seasons that it’s hard to imagine what they going to be like without him.

If Wisconsin’s been a mostly frontcourt operation the last couple seasons, I think the pendulum swings back towards its guards this season. Di’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, and Brevin Pritzl all should average near or above double-figure scoring this season.

The frontcourt to me has a lot of questions. Nate Reuvers has all the tools to one of the better big men in the conference, but it hasn’t quite come together yet. He should be in a feature role this season, so he could be in for a big year. Outside of that...well, there are a lot of questions. With Micah Potter now out most of the non-conference season, it will be an interesting problem Greg Gard tries to coach around.

With all that said, I think Wisconsin has around the same type of year this year. Maybe they don’t win 14 games in the conference, but this is a 5th-7th place team in the conference and a team fighting to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.”

10. Overall Season Outlook

Every year, there’s one or two Big Ten teams that I have a really tough time evaluating. They don’t seem to have enough to compete atop the league, but also have enough pieces to think they can make some noise in the NCAA Tournament as well. That middle group that could swing in a variety of different directions depending on a piece or two.

Wisconsin is very much in that mold this year. The Badgers are an experienced group, returning four players with starting experience and a number of upperclassmen. Players like Trice have also produced at a high level in Big Ten play. Experience along doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s certainly an encouraging sign.

On the other side, though, Wisconsin has some major question marks. The Badgers were so good last season because of Happ. Get nothing confused on that front. Wisconsin doesn’t come anywhere close to the NCAAs last year if Happ isn’t leading the team. And he and two others have now walked out the door. And without any clear replacements (at least for the first two months of the season), one has to wonder how this team gets back to the Big Dance.

And that’s the key question. Wisconsin returns most of the pieces from last year’s group that went 23-11 overall. But we don’t know what those pieces are without Happ holding things together. We’ll find out in the next few months if he was the proverbial duct tape or if he was just the best player of a talented group.

My guess is that it’s somewhere in between and that’s why I have Wisconsin projected to finish eighth in the league this year. The Badgers should still be a quality unit, just not good enough to contend with the top of the Big Ten anymore. We’ll see if some of those rising upperclassmen can take the next step and outperform that projection.

Big Ten Prediction: 8th Place