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2021-’22 Wisconsin Badgers Basketball Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Wisconsin Badgers and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2021-’22 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-’22 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-’22 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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Last season was a bizarre one in Madison. While the team had relatively solid marks overall, Wisconsin failed to live up to its sizable preseason expectations, particularly in conference play where the Badgers finished with an underwhelming 10-10 mark. It made for one of the more miserable top 15ish performances you’ll ever see.

The Badgers now hope to move forward after the frustrations of last season with an overhauled roster. Long-time players like D’Mitrik Trice, Nate Reuvers, and Micah Potter are now gone, meaning Greg Gard and his staff will need to find some new contributors for the first time in years. It will be one of Gard’s biggest challenges since taking the job.

The good news is Gard does have some talent to work with this year. Brad Davison returns in the backcourt and the program adds one of the league’s deepest groups this offseason, including three transfers and four recruits ranked 153rd or higher. There will be some kinks in the armor, but this could be the foundation of something great down the line.

So, how good can Wisconsin be this season? Let’s take a look.

1. 2020-’21 Season Performance

  • Record: 18-13 (10-10)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #14
  • NET Rating: #23
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (R32)

As noted in the intro, last season was a bizarre one for Wisconsin. While the Badgers were a good team, it often didn’t feel that way. Many have speculated about why that was the case, but the answer seems pretty clear: Wisconsin simply fell short against a brutal slate. Just take a look at some numbers regarding Wisconsin’s losses last season:

  • All 13 losses came against top 100 KenPom teams;
  • 12 of 13 losses came against top 40 opponents;
  • 10 losses came against top 25 opponents;
  • 8 losses came against top 10 opponents; and
  • 8 losses came away from home.

This wasn’t a case of Wisconsin “fading” down the stretch or losing its “edge” from the 2019-’20 season. This was simply Wisconsin falling short against elite opponents, often falling short away from home. Maybe that’s worthy of criticism, but it feels hyperbolic to rip a team too harshly for losing on the road to teams like Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan or in the NCAA Tournament to Baylor, who went on to win the title.

Wisconsin just wasn’t good enough to overcome a brutal slate.

It happens.

Highlights of the season included non-conference wins over Loyola (Chicago) and Louisville, wins over Michigan State, Indiana, and Rutgers in Big Ten play, and the NCAA Tournament blowout win over North Carolina. Low points included a tough loss to Marquette in December, blowout losses to Illinois and Michigan in Big Ten play, and the 4-8 finish to the regular season.

Individual statistical leaders were Jonathan Davis, Micah Potter, Nate Reuvers, and D’Mitrik Trice. Davis led the team in steals. Potter led the team in rebounds and total win shares. Reuvers led the team in blocks. Trice led the team in minutes, assists, and points.

2. Offseason Exits

The Badgers got hit pretty hard with offseason departures. The team lost Trevor Anderson, Aleem Ford, Joe Hedstrom, Walt McGrory, Micah Potter, Nate Reuvers, and D’Mitrik Trice. That’s three starters and two of the team’s top bench options.

The most significant departures are Potter and Trice. They were Wisconsin’s two leading scorers last season and dominated the roster in total win shares. Potter was a monster down low who could convert from deep and Trice was the team’s offensive play marker, initiating offense and getting the ball to the team’s stars.

And the losses don’t stop there, either. Ford and Reuvers were also starters who contributed significantly. Reuvers was second on the team in percentage of shots taken while on the floor and Ford was a reliable role player who avoided turnovers and made effort plays, including conversions from three-point range.

The final three departures are less significant, but are still notable. Anderson averaged 14.2 minutes per game and Hedstrom and McGrory filled out the roster. All told, Wisconsin will be losing five of its top eight in total minutes from last season, including two of its top three and both of its leading big men. Those are huge losses for a team to overcome in a single offseason.

3. New Additions

This season, the Badgers are adding four recruits and two transfers. The recruits are Chucky Hepburn, Chris Hodges, Markus Ilver, and Matthew Mors. According to 247Sports, all four are listed as three-star prospects. Hepburn is identified as a point guard and the three remaining recruits are listed as power forwards.

What’s particularly intriguing about this class are the close ratings of all four prospects. Not only are all four rated as three-stars by 247Sports, but they’re all ranked between 124th and 153rd nationally in the 2021 recruiting class. In the grand scheme of things, that’s incredibly tight. From a ratings perspective, all four are essentially identical. Expect all four to challenge for time this year, though none look like locks to start.

The transfers are Isaac Lindsey, Jahcobi Neath, and Chris Vogt. Lindsey comes from UNLV, Neath comes from Wake Forest, and Vogt arrives from Cincinnati. The most significant of the three is Vogt. He was Cinci’s leading reserve big man and one of the better offensive rebounders in the AAC last year. With the departures of Potter and Reuvers, expect Vogt to get even more playing time.

The other two transfers look less significant. Lindsey joins the team as a walk-on and Neath had mixed contributions in Wake Forest’s backcourt last season. Neath was an underwhelming shooter and had significant turnover issues. He will need to improve on those if he hopes to hit the ground running for Wisconsin this season.

4. Points of Optimism

Even though last season was a frustrating one for Badger fans, there are some reasons for hope this fall. The team was better than most believe last year and has a balanced roster, an experienced guard in Brad Davison, and some intriguing newcomers.

Let’s begin with last year. Fans might want to forget it, but it’s the benchmark for setting expectations for this season. And while many are critical of the final results, Wisconsin was a better team than many believe. The Badgers finished 14th nationally on KenPom and only lost to one team outside the top 40 on KenPom all season. You can’t find those kind of statistics for bad teams. Wisconsin was a good team with some missteps against elite competition. And that changes how you evaluate things coming into this year.

Wisconsin also enters this season with some of the key pieces from last year’s team, including Jonathan Davis, Davison, and Tyler Wahl. All three averaged over 24 minutes a game last season and should be set for expanded roles this time around. Some in the national media also believe Davison could be set for a breakout campaign. That gives Gard and his staff a nice and experienced core entering this season.

Some of the team’s younger players and newcomers could also make a splash this season. Vogt should fill an obvious hole on the roster in the frontcourt and the freshmen class has a chance to make quite an impact as well. Players like Hodges and Mors should also get a chance to contribute early alongside other underclassmen like Ben Carlson and Steven Crowl. Nobody is a lock to be a star out of this group, but it seems likely at least a few will emerge. And if so, Wisconsin could have a pretty solid lineup.

5. Points of Concern

The unfortunate part of having an experienced team is the year after. And the Badgers were certainly experienced last season, finishing 22nd nationally in KenPom’s experience metric. The roster was loaded with upperclassmen and routinely started four seniors. All told, six of the team’s top eight and its top three players in total minutes last season were seniors.

Well, the bill’s finally come due.

Wisconsin enters this season with massive questions across its lineup and roster. The Badgers are losing three starters and its two most reliable bench options. And those weren’t just starters either, they included Potter and Trice, who were arguably the team’s best players last season. This was a complete roster gutting and will make this a new look team.

There also aren’t an obvious solutions here. Players like Vogt are positional fits, but comparing Vogt to players like Potter and Reuvers is absurd. Vogt had to fight for playing time on an underwhelming Cinci team while Potter and Reuvers were some of the best big men to come through the Big Ten over the last few years. The same can be said for replacing Trice. There’s just no obvious fix on the roster.

Given what we’ve seen from Gard and Wisconsin in the past, it seems likely a player or two will outperform expectations. However, it’s hard not to look at the roster and think of the 2017-’18 season, which was the last time Wisconsin went through an overhaul like this. The Badgers finished 15-18 overall, 70th on KenPom, and missed the postseason. It will take quite an effort to avoid another backslide like that.

6. Top Player

Wisconsin enters this season without a clearly designated top player on its roster. Jonathan Davis and Davison are the most proven, but neither looks like a super star. Davis has the most room for growth as a freshman last season. He will have to figure out how to expand his game and keep his perimeter numbers up. That should be a challenge.

Outside of those two, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Vogt arrives with a decent pedigree and could make an impact down low, but he was far from a star with the Bearcats. All of the first and second-year players also have questions. None of them are anywhere close to proven. Wahl also looks like a potential breakout player after making some noise late last year.

All told, there’s really no telling how this will shake out. Wisconsin has a lot of new faces this year and you’re going to see them all get a shot to proven themselves.

7. 2021-’22 Schedule Breakdown

  • 10/29 - UW-Whitewater
  • 11/9 - St. Francis College (Brooklyn)
  • 11/12 - Green Bay
  • 11/15 - Providence
  • 11/22 - Texas A&M (Lahaina, HI)
  • 11/23 - Butler/Houston (Lahaina, HI)
  • 11/24 - Maui Invitational (Lahaina, HI)
  • 12/1 - at Georgia Tech
  • 12/4 - Marquette
  • 12/8 - Indiana
  • 12/11 - at Ohio State
  • 12/15 - Nicholls State
  • 12/23 - Morgan State
  • 12/29 - Illinois State
  • 1/3 - at Purdue
  • 1/6 - Iowa
  • 1/9 - at Maryland
  • 1/13 - Ohio State
  • 1/18 - at Northwestern
  • 1/21 - Michigan State
  • 1/25 - at Nebraska
  • 1/30 - Minnesota
  • 2/2 - at Illinois
  • 2/5 - Penn State
  • 2/8 - at Michigan State
  • 2/12 - Rutgers
  • 2/15 - at Indiana
  • 2/20 - Michigan
  • 2/23 - at Minnesota
  • 2/26 - at Rutgers
  • 3/1 - Purdue
  • 3/6 - Nebraska

This figures to be a pretty fun schedule for fans this season. Wisconsin gets marquee non-conference matchups against Providence, Georgia Tech, and Marquette and will also travel to Maui for what looks like an intriguing group. The Badgers are going to lose some of those games, but none look like sure losses out of the gate, which is encouraging.

Of course, Big Ten play will then be about what fans expect. The slate is loaded yet again, so Wisconsin will have its work cut out. For example, just look at this opening slate in January with KenPom odds next to each opponent:

  • 1/3 - at Purdue (20%)
  • 1/6 - Iowa (54%)
  • 1/9 - at Maryland (28%)
  • 1/13 - Ohio State (44%)
  • 1/18 - at Northwestern (40%)
  • 1/21 - Michigan State (54%)

That’s a six-game stretch where Wisconsin could lose every game and there are similar stretches later in the season as well. Simply stated, things are going to be challenging. That makes any opportunity even more valuable. Wisconsin desperately needs to protect home court and play well at the “easier” venues like Evanston and State College. If the team does that, a postseason bid is possible.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Brad Davison (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
  • SG: Jahcobi Neath (Rs So.) - 51%
  • SF: Jonathan Davis (Rs. Fr.) - 95%
  • PF: Tyler Wahl (Rs. So.) - 70%
  • C: Chris Vogt (Sr.) - 60%

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

Predicting Wisconsin’s lineup this season is a tall task. Not only because of the substantial roster overhaul this offseason, but also because so many players could fit into the lineup at multiple spots. There’s a lot that’s going to have to be ironed out and it’s unlikely the starting lineup on opening night will be the same as the lineup at season’s end.

In the backcourt, it’s pretty clear Davison will lock down a starting role. He’s a fifth-year senior with loads of experience and figures to be one of the best players on the roster. However, much is uncertain around him. We know Davis is going to start as well, but does he do so at the two or three spot in the lineup? It’s hard to tell without knowing how ready this year’s freshmen class will be.

At this point, I’m penciling in Jahcobi Neath alongside Davison in the backcourt. However, that’s with minimal confidence. Expect the freshmen and sophomores to battle it out and Gard to figure out a way to get the best one into the starting lineup alongside Davison and Davis. Players like Bowman and Chucky Hepburn will have opportunities as well.

Upfront, there seems to be some stability. Wahl returns after a solid 2020-’21 season and Vogt transferred in from Cinci. Both seem destined to open the season in the starting lineup, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ben Carlson or Steven Crowl push them for playing time. In fact, Wisconsin would be best served if Vogt is eventually put into a rotational role behind someone like Crowl.

All told, Gard and his staff have some pieces to work with here. The team returns a few proven players and has a plethora of young guys with potential. If even a few of them can hit the ground running, Wisconsin could be a formidable team.

9. Realistic Team Goals

If it hasn’t come across by now, expectations aren’t nearly as high for this year’s Wisconsin squad as they were last year. The Badgers have less depth and experience than last season and plenty of questions across the lineup. Badger fans likely aren’t used to entering seasons with question marks, but that’s reality this year.

Wisconsin will likely outperform the gravest of predictions this season, but this doesn’t look like a team set for big things in March. This year’s roster has the feel of a rebuilding group that might have to sweat things out on Selection Sunday. And that’s probably even a decent case scenario. With the offseason departures, there’s a reasonable chance Wisconsin misses the postseason altogether this season. It’s going to come down to a handful of games.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Few programs have experienced Wisconsin’s level of success over the last few decades. Since Bo Ryan took over in Madison, the program has been a mainstay in the Big Ten and college basketball nationally. It’s raised a plethora of banners during that period and sent even more players to play at the next level.

Unfortunately, maintaining that high level of play is a difficult challenge and it looks like the Badgers could be in for a down year this season. Wisconsin has enough to overcome the obstacles and get back to the Big Dance, but it’s going to take some work. The roster is loaded with youth and question marks, which usually doesn’t lead to great results.

We’ll have to wait and see how things sort out, but this could be one of Gard’s biggest challenges yet since taking over. He’ll have to rely heavily on a variety of underclassmen to hit the ground running. If those players beat expectations, Wisconsin has a chance to continue its run of remarkable success. If not, things could get rough.

Big Ten Prediction: 9th Place