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2020-’21 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 2020-’21 season.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-’21 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2020-’21 ‘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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Wisconsin entered last season with mixed expectations. The Badgers had finished 23-11 overall and 19th nationally on KenPom in 2018-’19, but were losing superstar big man Ethan Happ to graduation. Wisconsin returned a lot of complimentary pieces and had a proven coach in Greg Gard. It was just hard to buy too much into the roster without Happ in the lineup. He dominated the team’s possessions before his graduation and wouldn’t be easy to replace.

And early on, it looked like the critics were right.

Despite coming off that 23-11 performance, Wisconsin lost its opener against St. Mary’s and ended up fell to 5-5 overall by mid-December. Those opening struggles included three losses to teams outside the top 45 on KenPom, including a loss to a really underwhelming New Mexico team on a neutral court. By that point, some were starting to wonder whether the team would even be in NIT contention, let alone accomplish anything significant by season’s end.

But that’s exactly when things started to come together.

Wisconsin followed that 5-5 start by blowing out a respectable Indiana team at home and then with road wins against Tennessee and Ohio State shortly thereafter. And despite a misstep against Illinois in January, Wisconsin added huge victories over Penn State and Maryland a few weeks later as well. By mid-January, Wisconsin was suddenly 11-6 and quickly building a quality NCAA resume. Of course, the team went on to finish 21-10 overall and won a share of the Big Ten regular season title after an eight-game winning streak to close the regular season. It was a turnaround for the ages and fans will always be disappointed that we didn’t get to see it finish.

So, what comes now?

Well, Wisconsin enters this season with substantially higher expectations. The Badgers are projected as one of the favorites in the Big Ten and are considered serious Final Four contenders. And the hype is justified. Wisconsin returns a deep and experienced roster, led by returners like Micah Potter, Nate Reuvers, and D’Mitrik Trice. Even if one or two players take a step forward, this team could be in play for some significant things in March.

But can the team get it done? Let’s take a look.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse’s season preview post for the Wisconsin Badgers, make sure to check out the site’s podcast preview of the Badgers, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Drew Hamm of Bucky’s Fifth Quarter breaking down Wisconsin’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2019-’20 Season Performance

  • Record: 21-10 (14-6)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #22
  • NET Rating: #23
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A (Cancelled)

Much of Wisconsin’s performance last season was outlined above, but it deserves some more attention here. What the Badgers accomplished last year deserves a lot of praise. Wisconsin was probably the fourth or fifth most talented team in the league and somehow found a way to win the Big Ten title and earn the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament. We don’t know what would have happened after that, but that isn’t easy.

The pivotal stretch of the season was in December. Just look at this:

  • 12/7 - Win vs Indiana (84-64)
  • 12/11 - Loss at Rutgers (72-65)
  • 12/21 - Win vs Milwaukee (83-64)
  • 12/28 - Win at Tennessee (68-48)
  • 12/31 - Win vs Rider (65-37)
  • 1/3 - Win at Ohio State (61-57)

Wisconsin entered that run at an underwhelming 5-5 overall with multiple rough losses on its resume. But in what seemed like the blink of an eye, Wisconsin resurrected its season, scored two marquee road wins and three other wins as well. It usually takes months for teams to add those kind of marks. Wisconsin found a way to do it in six games.

And while things weren’t perfect after the six-game stretch above, the tide had turned. Wisconsin would add marquee wins against Penn State and Maryland just a few weeks later and would open February by beating an elite Michigan State team at home. Of course, it was all topped off by an eight-game winning streak to close the season, highlighted by wins over Ohio State and Michigan. Wisconsin finished the season with 21 total wins, including 13 wins against top 100 opponents and 12 against top 40 teams.

Highlights of the season included the wins over Marquette and Tennessee early on, the season sweep of Indiana and Ohio State, and the wins of Maryland, Michigan, and Michigan State. Some of the low points of the season were the early season losses to Richmond, NC State, and New Mexico.

The statistical leaders of the team were Brad Davison, Nate Reuvers, and D’Mitrik Trice. Davison led the team in total win shares. Reuvers led the team in points, rebounds, and blocks. Trice led the team in minutes, assists, and steals.

2. Offseason Exits

Despite a championship run last season, Wisconsin didn’t get hit by many offseason departures. Most teams who win championships often lose substantial portions of their roster. However, that didn’t happen for the Badgers this time around. The team ended up losing six players, but few were key contributors. The players were Michael Ballard, Courtland Cuevas, Owen Hamilton, Kobe King, Brevin Pritzl, and Samad Qawi.

The most significant departures here are King and Pritzl. King was a starting guard for the Badgers before transferring mid-season and Pritzl played extensive minutes during the season and was a reliable shooter from deep. For context, the two finished fifth and seventh on the roster in total win shares. More simply put, they were key contributors, but certainly not among the team’s top best players.

Perhaps the biggest thing Wisconsin will be losing from Pritzl is an experienced guard who was fantastic at avoiding mistakes. He had one of the lowest turnover rates in the conference, played within his role, and avoided fouls. A lot of pressure will be on players like Trevor Anderson and Brad Davison to fill in for those lost minutes this year.

The final departures were Ballard, Cuevas, Hamilton, and Qawi. None of the four played significantly and combined for less than 40 minutes last season. As such, it’s hard to believe their absences will be felt much, at least on the court.

All told, Wisconsin really isn’t losing much from last season. Yes, the Badgers are losing two real contributors, including King, who left town months before the end of last season. But we know Wisconsin can perform without King in the lineup and it seems likely they will be able to keep things rolling without Pritzl as well.

3. New Additions

This season, the Badgers will be adding five new recruits and two walk-ons this season. The incoming prospects are Lorne Bowman, Ben Carlson, Steven Crowl, Johnny Davis, and Jordan Davis. According to 247Sports, Carlson is rated as a four-star prospect and the other four are rated as three-stars. The site lists Lorne Bowman as a combo guard, Johnny Davis as a shooting guard, Jordan Davis as a small forward, Carlson as a power forward, and Crowl as a center. The walk-ons are Carter Gilmore and Justin Taphorn.

The recruit receiving the most attention is Carlson. He’s listed at 6-foot-9 and 200 pounds and is rated as a top 100 prospect by 247Sports. By most evaluations, Carlson figures to be Reuvers’ long-term replacement. He’s a skilled forward who should be able to work with the ball in his hands and grow as an outside contributor. He looks good enough to play early. The question will be whether he’s ready to push other talented guys out of the way.

The other four newcomers are largely of the same mold. Bowman and Johnny Davis are the highest rated of the four, but none project to be significant contributors this season with the depth in front of them in Madison. Given the departures of King and Pritzl, Bowman might have the easiest route to play. However, most of these are “wait and see” prospects who will likely come into the picture in 2021-’22 and beyond. The two walk-ons are likewise not expected to contribute this season.

All told, Wisconsin is adding a really solid class. This isn’t a group loaded with five-stars and instant impact types, but a lot of these guys have potential if they continue developing. Carlson should get some playing time and both Bowman and Johnny Davis are guys who could be darkhorses to contribute in the backcourt.

4. Points of Optimism

There’s a lot to be excited about for the Badgers this season. And that all starts with the team’s returning core. After all, Wisconsin won a Big Ten title last year and returns the vast majority of the roster that accomplished that. Four of the teams starters are back, including multiple All-Big Ten candidates in Micah Potter, Nate Reuvers, and D’Mitrik Trice.

Returning a few players alone doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s rare to see this much coming back. Wisconsin wasn’t just an average team, it won a Big Ten title. And bringing back four starters from that isn’t something you see every day. If you don’t believe me, look at the other two teams (Maryland and Michigan State) who shared the Big Ten title last year. Both the Terps and Spartans lost a huge hunk of their contributions.

The star potential on this roster is also significant. To start, Reuvers and Trice both made the All-Big Ten Third Team last season and should be there again this time around. And Potter was arguably better than both. He just didn’t have the total numbers to get there after sitting out the first half of the season due to NCAA transfer rules. Having three players at that level suggesting Wisconsin will be in the Big Ten title hunt yet again. And that doesn’t even incorporate players like Davison and Ford, who have extensive experience.

Wisconsin is also adding plenty of pieces this offseason as well. Carlson is a top 100 prospect who should provide depth in the frontcourt and players like Bowman and Johnny Davis could be useful pieces in the backcourt as well. Those additions really give this roster a deep and balanced feel. There are no obvious holes there. Wisconsin is going to need a guy or two to step up this year, but there’s no clear deficits. Expectations should be high.

5. Points of Concern

This is going to be a relatively short section and for good reason. Wisconsin enters this season with the most stable roster in the Big Ten and a plethora of proven options. There are some questions about the lineup and bench rotation, but this isn’t a team with obvious deficiencies. Things are pretty well balanced.

But if we are going to nitpick, there are a few spots to focus on. To start, Wisconsin does have to replace a starter in its backcourt in Pritzl. And while he wasn’t starting by the end of the year, he was playing starter minutes—Pritzl played at least 30 minutes in the team’s final eight games, including 37 in a key win against Rutgers. Greg Gard and staff will need to find someone to replace those contributions.

Fans also have to wonder about how Potter will perform this season. He put up incredible numbers in limited playing time last year, but it’s unclear whether he can maintain that same level of play for an entire season. If he does regress, one has to wonder whether Wisconsin will look closer to it did earlier in last season, rather than at the end. And given the early struggles, that’s not an exciting thought for fans.

Still, this is a team loaded with experience and depth and it’s hard to see many holes in this roster. As long as the Badgers avoid injury, it should be another great season.

6. Top Player

Wisconsin is one of a few Big Ten teams entering this season with multiple contenders in this category. The Badgers return plenty of talent from last season and has four players who figure to compete for the status as the team’s best player in Davison, Potter, Reuvers, and Trice. All of them have a shot at All-Big Ten status this season.

Here’s what I wrote about Potter in our top 25 player countdown:

During his two seasons in Columbus before he transferred to Wisconsin, Potter showed a diverse skillset. He could play outside the arc, rebound, and contribute down low. However, he really didn’t have the consistency to perform at a high level.

Well, that wasn’t the case last season in his first playing time in Madison.

Potter was a monster last season. He finished with the league’s second-best three-point percentage, hitting a ridiculous 46.9 percent from deep. And on top of that, he ranked in the top 10 in the Big Ten in offensive and defensive rebounding rate and top 10 in usage. He was an absolutely dominant player who led the Badgers offensively.

. . .

Potter is going to enter this season with high expectations. And if he can play the way he did last season during limited time and extrapolate it for an entire season, the sky’s the limit for Potter’s game. But that’s often easier said than done. It will be a major challenge, especially with opposing coaches now patently aware of his potential.

Expect Potter to regress a bit in the advanced metrics, but expand his playing time and total contributions. He should be one of Wisconsin’s best players this season and has a shot at All-Big Ten status if everything goes well.

And here’s what BTPowerhouse wrote about Reuvers:

Reuvers is a fantastic defender. He ranked No. 6 in the conference last season in blocked shots, averaging just under two per game. This despite going up some of the top big men in the country such as Luka Garza, Daniel Oturu, Xavier Tillman, Kofi Cockburn, and Jalen Smith. His physicality and strength has gradually improved over his career, and he will be called upon by the Badgers to help shut down another long list of challenging big men across the conference.

Additionally, Reuvers scoring has been a scoring threat for the Badgers. He scored in double-figures in 24 games last season, and he scored over 20 points in three of those. Heading into his final season, Reuvers is going to remain a go-to scoring threat for Wisconsin.

. . .

Reuvers will be a key member of a strong senior class for the Badgers. They will rely on him to shut down a host of elite big men across the Big Ten this season if Wisconsin has any hope of repeating as conference champs. He is bound to move up from No. 4 on the career blocks list at Wisconsin as the season progresses, and his ability to slow down or shut down opponents down low will be a vital factor in Wisconsin’s win total this year.

Reuvers will also be a go to scorer for the offense, and if his shot percentage increases then he will be an obvious All-Big Ten Second Team selection by season’s end instead of the Third Team honors he earned last season.

And Trice:

Trice is a well balanced guard that brings plenty of versatility and experience to the backcourt. Last year he didn’t wow the world with only 9.8 points per game, but he was a consistent enough scorer that shot 37.6% from three. He also averaged just over four assists and rebounds per game while also leading the Badgers in steals.

Running the point Trice saw his numbers raise from 2.6 to 4.2 assists per game. He also kept his turnovers in check with an increased usage, only committing 1.7 turnovers per game. Trice was just named to the preseason watch list for the Bob Cousy Award, rewarded to the best point guard in the country.

. . .

Trice is a versatile point guard that is one of the most experienced options in the Big Ten. After a slightly rock start to Gard’s tenure in Madison, Wisconsin seems to have things back to the consistent success the team had under former head coach Bo Ryan. Trice has shown the ability to shoot from outside and is a capable point guard and defender on one of the more stout programs in the nation.

Wisconsin occasionally has been offensively challenged and if Trice can improve his ability to score inside the arc that would be a big boost for the Badgers. Everyone is focusing on Iowa and Illinois after a few of their stars decided to return but Wisconsin is coming off of a tie for first in the conference and will bring back a loaded roster this year that should be able to compete at the top of the conference

Davison also enters this season with plenty of experience and should get an opportunity with Pritzl out the door. The safe bet here is on Trice, but don’t be surprised if any of these four elevate their game.

7. 2020-’21 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/25 - Eastern Illinois
  • 11/27 - Arkansas Pine Bluff
  • 12/1 - Green Bay
  • 12/4 - at Marquette
  • 12/9 - Louisville
  • 12/16 - Northern Iowa
  • 12/21 - Nebraska
  • 12/25 - at Michigan State
  • 12/28 - Maryland
  • 12/31 - Minnesota
  • 1/3 - at Penn State
  • 1/7 - Indiana
  • 1/12 - at Michigan
  • 1/15 - at Rutgers
  • 1/23 - Ohio State
  • 1/27 - Northwestern
  • 1/30 - at Maryland
  • 2/2 - Penn State
  • 2/6 - at Illinois
  • 2/11 - at Nebraska
  • 2/14 - Michigan
  • 2/18 - Iowa
  • 2/21 - at Northwestern
  • 2/27 - Illinois
  • 3/2 - at Purdue
  • 3/7 - at Iowa

There’s a lot to like about this slate. To start, Wisconsin has a really intriguing non-conference slate, even if things are abbreviated this year. The matchup against Eastern Illinois is probably better than most anticipate and the games against Marquette and Louisville should be fantastic. Wisconsin should be a moderate favorite in all of its non-conference games, but those Marquette and Louisville games will be huge challenges.

Conference play also looks really interesting. Things start off pretty manageable with Nebraska, but it heats up significantly from there. Wisconsin gets Michigan State on Christmas and the massive stretch in January listed below:

  • 1/3 - at Penn State
  • 1/7 - Indiana
  • 1/12 - at Michigan
  • 1/15 - at Rutgers
  • 1/23 - Ohio State

Wisconsin should be favored in four of those five games, but all are in that tricky range, where things could swing either ways. The team’s Big Ten title hopes will likely be decided there. Play well and the team has a great shot at another conference crown. The close of the season also looks really challenging:

  • 2/14 - Michigan
  • 2/18 - Iowa
  • 2/21 - at Northwestern
  • 2/27 - Illinois
  • 3/2 - at Purdue
  • 3/7 - at Iowa

Of those six games, everyone but Northwestern is ranked 25th or higher on KenPom’s preseason rankings. And Illinois and Iowa are receiving even more national media hype than they are from KenPom. This is the stretch where Wisconsin could set itself up for a remarkable year. Go 4-2 or better there and Wisconsin’s going to get a great seed in March.

Expect a lot of tight games this year and a few bumps along the way. But Wisconsin certainly has a shot at performing against this challenging slate.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: D’Mitrik Trice (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
  • SG: Brad Davison (Sr.) - 85%
  • SF: Aleem Ford (Rs. Sr.) - 80%
  • PF: Nate Reuvers (Sr.) - 95%
  • C: Micah Potter (Rs. Sr.) - 95%

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

Experience, experience, experience. That’s the mantra for Wisconsin’s lineup this year. Wisconsin figures to have one of the most stable lineups in the Big Ten this year and certainly the league’s most experienced roster. The Badgers could realistically start five seniors this season, which isn’t something you see all that often in today’s world.

In the backcourt, Trice and Davison should be pretty safe bets to start. Trice landed on the All-Big Ten third team last season and could do even better this time around since part of his early contributions were eaten up by King’s play last year. Likewise, Davison is a known commodity coming into the year. His offensive game is limited, but he’s going to bring defensive intensity to the floor and make nice passes when needed.

Behind those two, Wisconsin will likely lean on Trevor Anderson as the primary backup. The incoming freshmen could also have an impact if they’re ready to go. Bowman and both of the Davis’ will likely get a look. The good news is Trice and Davison have shown they can play substantial minutes, so there won’t be much pressure on the freshmen to contribute immediately. And that’s a good way for newcomers to join the program.

On the wing, expect Ford and Reuvers to get most of the playing time. Both are proven contributors and Reuvers has some high level star potential. And the primary bench options behind them will be Tyler Wahl and Carlson. Wahl had some inconsistency issues last year, but he was still a freshman and should take a step forward this year. Meanwhile, Carlson arrives as a pretty highly touted freshman and will get a serious look.

Upfront, expect Potter to lock down things upfront. His numbers were incredible last season, but came in limited playing time. Fans are hoping he can stay on the court more consistently this time around. Behind him, Reuvers will get some of the reserve minutes and Crowl could see time as well.

The other nice thing about Wisconsin’s roster is there’s a lot of diversity between the starters. Players like Davison, Ford, and Reuvers are more than capable of playing at multiple spots, taking a lot of pressure off the bench. This should allow Gard to keep the most productive players on the floor at all times.

Overall, Wisconsin enters this season with a tremendously experienced and stable lineup. There’s some uncertainty on the bench, but it’s hard to complain about much here. Expect much of the same for the Badgers this time around.

9. Outside Perspective From Drew Hamm of Bucky’s Fifth Quarter

“The Wisconsin Badgers enter this season ranked No. 7 in the preseason AP Poll. That alone should tell you where expectations lie as we head into the opening games of the season. UW’s non-conference schedule isn’t finalized yet, but they do have games against Northern Iowa, Marquette and Louisville on the docket, however their resume shouldn’t lack for quality win opportunities with the B1G conference having seven teams ranked in the top-25.

The main reason for Wisconsin’s lofty preseason ranking is the fact that they return every contributor, except one, from last year’s Big Ten regular season champion team that also ended the year on an eight game winning streak before, well, you know. The starting five consists of five seniors and three players, PG D’Mitrik Trice, PF Nate Reuvers and C Micah Potter, who are on the respective preseason watch lists for the best player at their position. The bench will be young, although true sophomore wing Tyler Wahl got experience playing last year and backup PG Trevor Anderson is a senior, with a couple of true freshmen potentially seeing minutes.

UW should find themselves in the thick of the Big Ten Conference race with Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State and will probably be lurking around the top-10 nationally all year. There are few weaknesses on the this team: all five starters can shoot and rebound well for their positions, they play good defense and have supreme levels of familiarity with each other. The one thing that could hold the team back is, while all five starters could be the leading scorer on any given night, there isn’t a defined “alpha dog” to get them a bucket when the clock is winding down. Will Potter or Trice or Brad Davison (who has hit a number of big shots) be the one to take the last shot? Hard to say!

The Badgers should make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but beyond that I could see them losing in the Sweet 16 or going to the Final Four.” - Drew Hamm.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Wisconsin enters this season with high expectations and rightfully so. The Badgers won a share of last year’s Big Ten title and bring back the vast majority of that team. And with a handful of talented newcomers to fill out the roster, that’s just a lot to like here. Wisconsin projects to start five seniors this year and has plenty behind them.

The biggest challenge will be finding ways to improve on last year’s mark. Gard is trying to improve a dish with essentially the same ingredients. Even if it was a good recipe, it’s hard to do. Potter will likely be the x-factor here. If he can maintain his high level of player from last season, Wisconsin has a chance for a special season.

Expect much of this season to be like last year. Smart and disciplined basketball against an absolutely brutal slate. And if the team can find a new depth piece or two, Wisconsin has a serious shot at a Big Ten title and much more in March.

Big Ten Prediction: 2nd Place