The 2022-’23 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2022-’23 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.
It’s been quite a run since Greg Gard took over in Madison. Things initially started well, but tailed off as Bo Ryan’s players departed the roster. It left many wondering whether Gard was the right man for the job. Fortunately for the Badger fans, things reversed course from there and Wisconsin has seen a return to form (for the most part) the last few years. That culminated in last season, where Wisconsin won a share of the Big Ten regular season title.
But several of the key contributors from that team are now gone, including do-it-all star Johnny Davis and team leader Brad Davison. That means Gard and his staff will need to find production elsewhere, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. Davis and Davison accounted for 44.2 percent of the team’s field goal attempts by themselves. It leaves Gard with a major challenge heading into this season.
The good news is Wisconsin returns enough to feel confident about its chances this season. The backcourt has potential, the frontcourt returns after a productive campaign, and the Badgers have enough talented pieces on the wing to think Gard can find some new shooters there as well. The biggest challenge will be figuring out who runs the offense and who takes the big shots when it matters most.
So, can Wisconsin continue its recent run of success? Let’s take a look.
1. 2021-’22 Season Performance
- Record: 25-8 (15-5)
- KenPom Team Rating: #37
- NET Rating: #25
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (R32)
Despite entering the season with underwhelming expectations, Wisconsin hit the ground running and used a great push through January to earn itself a share of the Big Ten title and postseason play for the first time since 2015, since things went sideways in 2020. There were missteps, but those were few and far between. It was a thoroughly great season from start to finish.
Non-conference play was largely defined by the trip to Vegas, where the Badgers scored multiple marquee wins, including a win over an eventual Elite Eight team in Houston. Wisconsin also grabbed wins against teams like Georgia Tech, Marquette, and Saint Mary’s. The only misstep came early on, when the Badgers fell short in a competitive game against Providence.
Fortunately, that momentum carried into conference play, where Wisconsin jumped out to a 6-1 start. The Badgers also scored some massive wins in that opening stretch, including a huge road win over Purdue and a home victory a few nights later against the Hawkeyes. Wisconsin would eventually finish 15-5 overall, which was good enough to grab a share of the Big Ten regular season title and the two seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Unfortunately, Wisconsin fell short there, falling to Michigan State in the opener. The Badgers would then win their NCAA opener, but couldn’t get the win against Iowa State to move any further.
Highlights of the season included the non-conference wins over Houston and Marquette, the Big Ten victories over Purdue and Michigan, and the postseason win over Colgate to advance to the Round of 32. Low points included the regular season losses to Michigan State and Nebraska, the Big Ten Tournament upset against the Spartans, and the letdown against the Cyclones in the Round of 32.
Individual statistical leaders were Johnny Davis, Brad Davison, Chucky Hepburn, Chris Vogt, and Tyler Wahl. Davis led the team in points, rebounds, and total win shares. Davison led the team in minutes. Hepburn led the team in assists. Vogt led the team in blocks. Wahl led the team in steals.
2. Offseason Exits
Wisconsin got hit pretty hard with offseason departures. The Badgers lost seven players in Lorne Bowman, Ben Carlson, Johnny Davis, Brad Davison, Carter Higginbottom, Matthew Mors, and Chris Vogt. That’s two starters, the team’s best player, and a few key reserves as well.
The most significant departures are clearly Davis and Davison. They both started all of last season and Davis was one of the Big Ten’s most prolific scorers. He was dynamite in all aspects and absolutely dominated Wisconsin’s offensive usage. For perspective, Davis’ 492 field goal attempts was 130 higher than Davison, who finished at a distant second. These two led Wisconsin’s offense and will leave a massive void behind them.
Both Davis and Davison also did a ton off the court as well. Davison has been the program’s emotional leader for a few seasons and Davis provided a sense of confidence for the entire roster. Having contributors like that takes pressure off everybody else and replacing them won’t be easy.
The other notable departures here are Carlson, Mors, and Vogt, as all three were key depth options. Carlson and Vogt were reliable contributors last season off the bench and Mors was part of that talented 2021 class that seemed destined to contribute down the line. Losing all three is a big hit to the team’s depth and hopes at the four and five spots going into the future.
Overall, only four contributors are really departing from Madison. Unfortunately, all four were important and two carried the Badgers in a lot of games last season. It’ll be quite a challenge to find replacements.
3. New Additions
This season, the Badgers will be adding one new recruit and two transfers. The new recruit is Connor Essengian, who is rated as a three-star prospect out of Indiana. He is listed at 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds and is expected to provide additional backcourt depth for the team this season. However, few expect him to push for a starting spot early on. Ross Candelino, Isaac Gard, and Luke Haertle also join as walk-ons.
The two transfers are Max Klesmit and Kamari McGee. Klesmit is a guard out of Wofford and McGee is a guard out of Green Bay. Both have a chance to contribute early. Klesmit put up massive numbers for the Terriers last season on a lot of usage. Most are expecting him to slide into the void left by Davis. McGee played a ton as well last season, though his numbers were much rougher, finishing with just an 87.7 offensive rating. The question for both will be how they play against much stiffer competition this season.
All told, this is a solid group of newcomers. Wisconsin gets a potential starter on the wing in Klesmit and two backcourt depth options in Essengian and McGee. Give them time and they could develop into decent contributors.
4. Points of Optimism
There’s plenty to be excited about for the Badgers this season. That excitement has to begin with the team’s deep base of returners, potential rising star power, and the addition of Klesmit, who could really fill out the lineup well. Add in an experienced and proven coaching staff and there are some major things to like.
The returners, of course, are the place to begin. And Wisconsin has plenty of them. The Badgers return three starters from last season, including a few guys with a lot of room to grow. Hepburn was a productive point guard last season and should only be better this time around, considering he was a true freshman last year. Crowl and Wahl also return one of the league’s more consistent frontcourts from last season as well.
There’s potential star power here as well. Hepburn was productive as a freshman and could easily take a few steps forward. Frankly, he’s probably one of the biggest sleepers in the league from an All-Big Ten perspective and he might not even end up being the team’s best scorer with the addition of Klesmit. Crowl also held up well in a lot of games last year and could be poised to benefit greatly from a Wisconsin offense that shares the ball more, just as it did earlier in Gard’s tenure.
We also have to (again) note Klesmit’s addition here. He has the chance to be really special. The Badgers are going to give him every opportunity to take over the offense with Davis’ departure and he could very well be ready to convert on that. It’s hard to say how well he’ll transition from mid-major to high-major basketball, but he did show up in some big games against tough competition last season, so there are some reasons for hope.
5. Points of Concern
Unfortunately, there are also reasons for concern about this year’s Badger squad. Of course, we have to begin with the two special players walking out the door. Davis was the team’s offensive initiator and Davison was largely the same on the defensive end. These guys were the heart and soul of Wisconsin’s team last season. You don’t just replace that in an offseason. It takes years to find players like that, especially a talent like Davis.
It’s also important to underscore what Davis’ departure means for the team’s offense this season. We touched on some of the general numbers above, but Davis carried things routinely in conference play. Just take the team’s road win against Purdue last season, which was the one that set up the Badgers to win the Big Ten. Davis scored 37 of the team’s 76 points that night and finished with an incredible 14 rebounds as well. And for a team that finished just 62nd in offensive rating, losing a talent like that could have a waterfall impact on everyone else. Unless everyone else improves significantly, don’t be shocked if the team really struggles to score.
Those losses also come from a team that unquestionably overachieved last season. Despite a relatively underwhelming roster from a talent perspective and finishing 37th on KenPom, Wisconsin found a way to win the Big Ten. That’s an incredible achievement and the program and its coaching staff deserves credit. However, the Badgers were pretty fortunate to get the job done. Even KenPom acknowledged as much, ranking Wisconsin as the 15th luckiest team in the country last season.
And that “luck” discussion isn’t here to discredit Wisconsin’s performance last season. Rather, it’s here to make sure we have an accurate baseline heading into this season. And that baseline suggests the Badgers may be coming off a bit of a weaker mark than fans might appreciate. This isn’t your typical one seed Big Ten champion. It’s a flawed group that overachieved, making every roster loss even more significant. It all means plenty of challenges ahead of everyone in Madison.
6. Top Player
With the departures of Davis and Davison, this category projects to be pretty open this season. The leading contenders appear to be the returners in Hepburn, Wahl, and Crowl. Given Hepburn’s youth, he’s probably the most likely to take a big step forward. However, all three have plenty of potential and have shown themselves to be solid contributors in the past.
Klesmit is also going to have a huge opportunity to star for the Badgers this season. He’s a volume scorer that’s going to have a chance to score in bulk here. In a lot of ways, Wisconsin’s probably going to have to ride or die with Klesmit, so he’ll have the chance to develop into a star if things go well. Essegian is also a sleeper here, particularly given his 10 points in the opening exhibition.
7. 2022-’23 Schedule Breakdown
- 10/30 - UW-Eau Claire
- 11/7 - South Dakota
- 11/11 - Stanford (Milwaukee, WI)
- 11/15 - Green Bay
- 11/23 - Dayton (Nassau, Bahamas)
- 11/24 - Kansas/NC State (Nassau, Bahamas)
- 11/25 - TBD (Nassau, Bahamas)
- 11/29 - Wake Forest
- 12/3 - at Marquette
- 12/6 - Maryland
- 12/11 - at Iowa
- 12/15 - Lehigh
- 12/23 - Grambling State
- 12/30 - Western Michigan
- 1/3 - Minnesota
- 1/7 - at Illinois
- 1/10 - Michigan State
- 1/14 - at Indiana
- 1/17 - Penn State
- 1/21 - at Northwestern
- 1/25 - at Maryland
- 1/28 - Illinois
- 2/2 - at Ohio State
- 2/5 - Northwestern
- 2/8 - at Penn State
- 2/11 - at Nebraska
- 2/14 - Michigan
- 2/18 - Rutgers
- 2/22 - Iowa
- 2/26 - at Michigan
- 3/2 - Purdue
- 3/5 - at Minnesota
Wisconsin gets a pretty challenging slate this year. The team gets a handful of marquee non-conference matchups, some of the toughest draws in league play, and a few stretches that could absolutely derail the season if Wisconsin isn’t ready to play.
Non-conference play for the Badgers will generally consist of these categories: (1) the Battle 4 Atlantis; (2) tricky, but winnable games; and (3) baby seals. The first category looks particularly challenging with a game against Dayton and Kansas likely waiting thereafter. The second will be interesting, as Wisconsin gets games against teams like Marquette and Wake Forest, who aren’t terrible, but aren’t great either. Show up and play decently and Wisconsin should win all of those. The last, of course, is relatively uninteresting as the Badgers will be big favorites in all the games.
Meanwhile, Big Ten play figures to be interesting as well. The Badgers got double-plays against Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan and a road trip to face Indiana in mid-January. All those matchups project to be really challenging. Wisconsin caught a few breaks, including avoiding Purdue twice, but not a ton.
This is easily the most interesting stretch, with KenPom odds noted alongside:
- 2/14 - Michigan (50%)
- 2/18 - Rutgers (60%)
- 2/22 - Iowa (49%)
- 2/26 - at Michigan (28%)
- 3/2 - Purdue (50%)
- 3/5 - at Minnesota (59%)
That’s six “big” games where five range between 29 and 60 percent win percentages. Virtually every game projects as a toss up. Show up well and an NCAA bid should be pretty safe. However, underperform and the team could watch its postseason hopes go up in flames.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Chucky Hepburn (So.) - 95%
- SG: Jordan Davis (Jr.) - 70%
- SF: Max Klesmit (Jr.) - 95%
- PF: Tyler Wahl (Sr.) - 90%
- C: Steven Crowl (Jr.) - 90%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
Wisconsin enters this season with a really interesting starting lineup. The Badgers return three starters, which should compose the core of the group, and add a few more pieces that could compete for starting time as well. Wisconsin will have to figure out its backcourt moving forward, but there’s enough there to put together a pretty solid group.
In the backcourt, it’s obvious that Hepburn will lock down the starting point guard position. The only question is who will play alongside him. Jordan Davis started during the exhibition, Essegian played almost as many minutes. Klesmit also arrives with a fair amount of hype and will start somewhere. The question is whether it makes more sense to start Klesmit at the two and three and who will be the best option alongside him. Expect some growing pains and things to move a bit as the season continues.
On the wing, Klesmit is going to start. He’s expected to be one of Wisconsin’s primary scoring options and arrives with plenty of college experience. Isaac Lindsey and Markus Ilver will also get time here. Expect those two to battle for playing time early on, with someone gradually emerging for more time as the season continues. This is the spot where things look the thinnest, so some development here would be welcome news for Badger fans.
Upfront, you’re going to see Wahl and Crowl start. Both are returning starters and well established contributors. Chris Hodges figures to be their main backup with Lindsey and Ilver being potential options behind Wahl. This is probably the most predictable group, given the returns.
Overall, Wisconsin should have a pretty predictable lineup early on. However, fans will hope to see some players emerge in the backcourt as the season goes on to help Hepburn. If so, the Badgers could once again end up in the top of the Big Ten discussion.
9. Realistic Team Goals
After a few seasons of mixed results, Badger fans got to enjoy a return to form in Madison last year. Wisconsin not only finished near the top of the Big Ten, but earned itself a share of the Big Ten title and got to enjoy a postseason for the first time since 2015. It was a welcome improvement and got much of the fanbase back on Gard’s side after some missteps.
Unfortunately, he’s likely going to have to pull another magic trick this time around. The Badgers seemingly have less talent than last year’s squad and have some major forthcoming questions on the offensive side of the floor. Much will depend on how Hepburn progresses and the addition of Klesmit. Otherwise, this feels like a group that will be in the bubble discussion for quite some time.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Fans have to be thrilled wit how last season went for the Badgers. The challenge will now be keeping that momentum going. Returning players like Hepburn, Crowl, and Wahl should help that effort significantly. All three were proven contributors on a Big Ten title winning squad. It’s a great place to begin as we enter the season.
However, it’s hard to see Wisconsin being as good as it was last season, particularly with the losses of Davis and Davison. Those were special players that carried the Badgers in a lot of key matchups. Expect another NCAA campaign, but one that will be trickier.