The 2023-’24 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2023-’24 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 postseason potential.
While it may not seem that long ago, Greg Gard is quickly approaching a decade as Wisconsin’s head man. And what a ride it’s been, with the Badgers swinging drastically during that tenure. Wisconsin has made the NCAA Tournament five times with Gard, but also have delivered two lackluster years and a some thoroughly underwhelming moments.
Unfortunately, one of the lowest moments was last season, as Wisconsin put together a frustrating 17-13 regular season with a plethora of disappointing losses. An NIT run alleviated some of the pain, but fans of a program with as much success as Wisconsin isn’t going to be blown away with a run in a lesser than tournament.
The good news is many of last year’s pieces are back and with more experience. Connor Essegian could be ready to take a significant step forward and Chuck Hepburn had some flashes last year. The frontcourt could also be poised to be one of the better groups in the league, led by Steven Crowl and Tyler Wahl.
So, can Wisconsin bounce back? Let’s take a look.
1. 2022-’23 Season Performance
- Record: 20-15 (9-11)
- KenPom Team Rating: #61
- NET Rating: #72
- Postseason Appearance: NIT
Last season was a disaster for the Badgers. While the season started well, the wheels came off in early January and didn’t improve much from there. Wisconsin eventually missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018 and only the second time since the 1990s.
The season was largely defined by a litany of close losses for Wisconsin, beginning on Thanksgiving with an overtime loss to Kansas. The trend only continued from there, as Wisconsin would go on to lose a total of 11 games by 10 points or less during the regular season, including two others in overtime and a few others by a single possession.
Perhaps the only “good” news about the season came at the end, when Wisconsin went on a run in the NIT and made it to New Orleans before falling short against a really good North Texas squad. The run included two wins at home and a road win over Oregon. It at least put a positive spin on the close of a lackluster season.
Highlights of the season included non-conference wins over Dayton, Marquette, and USC, regular season wins over Iowa, Maryland, and Penn State, and the postseason NIT run. Low points included the loss to Kansas, the 1-6 run to close January, and the losses to Ohio State and North Texas in the postseason.
Individual statistical leaders were Steven Crowl and Chucky Hepburn. Crowl led the team in rebounds, blocks, and total win shares. Hepburn led the team in minutes, points, assists, and steals.
2. Offseason Exits
Wisconsin got off light on offseason departures. The Badgers only lost three players in Jordan Davis, Jahcobi Neath, and Justin Taphorn and none of them were star level contributors. It should make bouncing back significantly easier this season.
The most significant departure is certainly Davis, who averaged 20.5 minutes per game. Now, Davis wasn’t a star, but he was a reliable bench player who played over half of Wisconsin’s minutes last season. He was great at avoiding turnovers and helped on the defensive boards.
Neither of the other two departures played much at all. They combined for a total of 34 minutes last season, which should say all that needs to be said about their contributions last season. Gard should easily be able to find replacements for these three.
3. New Additions
This season, the Badgers will be adding three new recruits and one transfer. The recruits are John Blackwell, Nolan Winter, and Gus Yalden. Blackwell is listed as a combo guard and the other two are listed as power forwards. Yalden is rated as a four-star prospect by 247Sports and the other two are listed as three-stars. Jack Janicki joined the program as a walk-on.
The recruits receiving the most attention are Winter and Yalden. Both are rated narrowly outside the top 100 and fit your Badger prototype of the Gard era. They’re lanky forwards who should turn into reliable two-way players with moderate development. Expect Yalden to have an easier path to playing time, but both project as a year or two projects.
The lone transfer is AJ Storr. He is a guard with immediate eligibility from St. John’s and should be able to fill some of the minutes lost by Davis behind Connor Essegian and Max Klesmit. He put up decent numbers for the Red Storm last season, though he struggled to earn consistent playing time. His most impressive stat is likely his 40.4 percent from three-point range.
Overall, it’s a great group of additions, particularly when considering the depth the Badgers already boast heading into next season. This group should get plenty of time to develop and find their way into the lineup behind more proven options. This is a great development group.
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 impressive returning depth. In today’s world of college basketball, it’s rare to return the majority of a starting lineup, but Wisconsin is returning the entire group. It’s almost unprecedented in today’s game, especially for a team that had a winning record last season.
A handful of those players also have star potential. Essegian and Tyler Wahl emerged significantly as the season continued and put up big numbers down the stretch. Even in the loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament, the two combined for 30 points and 18 rebounds. If even one of the two takes the next step, Wisconsin should be set up for big things.
The Badgers also add enough depth to keep things interesting. The incoming recruiting class doesn’t pop on paper, but Wisconsin doesn’t need that group to contribute much. They’ll have time to sit, develop, and find their places as we roll toward March. And that’s where the Badgers have done their best in recent years.
Wisconsin also wasn’t nearly as far off last season as some might believe. The Badgers finished 20-15 and easily could have made the NCAA Tournament if the team had caught a little more luck. The litany of close losses kept Wisconsin from the Big Dance more than anything else. Even modest improvement and those results could easily flip.
5. Points of Concern
Of course, there are also plenty of reasons for concern. The biggest issues arise from the team’s biggest strength, which is its returners. And while that might sound odd, it makes sense here. Simply stated, Wisconsin wasn’t a good team last year. Even if the team’s biggest issue was close losses, the Badgers lost those games and finished 61st on KenPom. Returning players is usually good news, but do fans really want to return the entire lineup from a team that went 9-11 in Big Ten play?
Wisconsin also desperately needs Essegian or Wahl to step up. Yes, both have star potential, but we’ve seen plenty of players show flashes and never take the next step. It’s imperative one (or both) take serious steps forward this season. Otherwise, the Badgers are going to be in trouble. Basketball is a game largely dependent on star level contributors. Wisconsin had none last year and needs some this time around.
It’s also worth asking what the Badgers plan to do this season to resurrect the team’s putrid offensive numbers. Wisconsin finished 140th in offensive efficiency last season and shot a horrific 46.3 percent from two-point range, which was good for 322nd nationally. The Badgers play great defense, but that’s only going to take you so far. Much will be on Hepburn to make some serious improvements.
6. Top Player
With so many returning pieces, Badger fans should expect much of the same in this category. Crowl and Hepburn were arguably the team’s most consistent contributors and should be again this time around. Essegian also appears poised to take the next step and turn into one of the league’s better scorers.
Outside of those three, it’s hard to see anyone else earning this distinction. Max Klemsit and Tyler Wahl also had respectable enough numbers last season, but it’s hard to see either closing the gap on the “big three” above. Other potential darkhorses will be Storr and Yalden, who should both get shots at early playing time this season.
7. 2022-’23 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/1 - UW-Stevens Point
- 11/6 - Arkansas State
- 11/10 - Tennessee
- 11/14 - at Providence
- 11/17 - Robert Morris
- 11/20 - Virginia (Fort Myers, FL)
- 11/22 - SMU/West Virginia (Fort Myers, FL)
- 11/27 - Western Illinois
- 12/2 - Marquette
- 12/5 - at Michigan State
- 12/9 - at Arizona
- 12/14 - Jacksonville State
- 12/22 - Chicago State
- 1/2 - Iowa
- 1/6 - Nebraska
- 1/10 - at Ohio State
- 1/13 - Northwestern
- 1/16 - at Penn State
- 1/19 - Indiana
- 1/23 - at Minnesota
- 1/26 - Michigan State
- 2/1 - at Nebraska
- 2/4 - Purdue
- 2/7 - at Michigan
- 2/10 - at Rutgers
- 2/13 - Ohio State
- 2/17 - at Iowa
- 2/20 - Maryland
- 2/27 - at Indiana
- 3/2 - Illinois
- 3/7 - Rutgers
- 3/10 - at Purdue
Wisconsin will have its hands full with this slate. The Badgers get a variety of marquee opponents this season and get many of them away from home. Even in the first few weeks of the season, Wisconsin projects to play four of the top 15 in the country, with half the games coming away from home. The team will have its hands full.
Non-conference play will be highlighted by the matchups against Tennessee, Marquette, and Arizona and the trip to Fort Myers. All five games look challenging, even for a team like Wisconsin returning as many pieces as it does this fall. If the Badgers can find a way to split those games, or even go 3-2, it would be a huge boost for the team’s postseason hopes.
And the team will get no breaks from there in conference play. The Badgers drew a particularly challenging slate, with double-plays against Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Purdue. That’s eight of the team’s games right off the bat and it doesn’t even mention road trips to Iowa, Michigan, and Rutgers.
Perhaps the most important stretch of the schedule will be in late January and early February, with the following games, noted with their KenPom win percentages:
- 1/26 - Michigan State (58%)
- 2/1 - at Nebraska (58%)
- 2/4 - Purdue (46%)
- 2/7 - at Michigan (51%)
- 2/10 - at Rutgers (57%)
- 2/13 - Ohio State (69%)
- 2/17 - at Iowa (53%)
That’s a seven-game stretch where Wisconsin has between 46 and 58 percent odds in six matchups. It’s the epitome of a swing stretch where games could flip on a few plays. It will be crucial for the Badgers to navigate this stretch. Otherwise, a darkhorse Big Ten title campaign will be out the window.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Chucky Hepburn (Jr.) - 95%
- SG: Max Klesmit (Jr.) - 90%
- SF: Connor Essegian (So.) - 95%
- PF: Tyler Wahl (Gr.) - 95%
- C: Steven Crowl (Jr.) - 95%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
Wisconsin enters this season with arguably the league’s most predictable lineup, after returning nearly every key contributor from last season. The Badgers bring back a solid group and fans should expect the lineup to look similar as a result.
In the backcourt, Hepburn and Klesmit will take the majority of minutes with Essegian filling in behind them when needed. Kamari McGee and Storr will also grab backup minutes as well. Fans will be hoping an improved bench here can alleviate some of the pressur eon Hepburn, who was often asked to do too much last season.
The wing will ride with Essegian. He played extremely well as a freshman and should be even better this time around with added experience. Tyler Wahl should start alongside him after another productive campaign. Carter Gilmore should take many of the backup minutes. Fans will hope newcomers like Yalden can earn some minutes as well.
Upfront, Crowl will take the vast majority of minutes at the five. The only real question will be who backs him up. Wahl often did it last year, but Gard and staff will certainly hope to maximize Wahl at the four. This is where true freshman Winter could make an early impact. If he can be a productive bench option, it could open up Wahl and the rest of the lineup.
Overall, Wisconsin should have a pretty predictable lineup. The biggest question will be how the bench develops behind them. If the Badgers can improve there, the team could become really dangerous in March.
9. Realistic Team Goals
Given how last season unfolded, it would be misleading to suggest the Badgers are “loaded” or otherwise guaranteed to have success this season. Wisconsin was a thoroughly mediocre team last time it was on the court and much of that roster returns this time around. Turning an NIT squad into a national contender isn’t exactly a given.
With that said, it’s almost unheard of to bring back an entire starting lineup for a major conference team. And yet, that’s what Wisconsin is doing this fall. The Badgers return every major contributor from last season and add to that, with an intriguing transfer and a respectable enough recruiting class. It all looks great on paper and should put the Badgers back into serious consideration for the NCAA Tournament.
10. Overall Season Outlook
It’s been a bit of a wild ride under Gard’s leadership in Madison. The program has swung between nationally relevant and underwhelming. Unfortunately, Badger fans got the short end of the stick on that exchange last year, as Wisconsin limped to a 17-13 mark in the regular season.
But with most of that roster back, Wisconsin seems poised to take a serious step forward. KenPom has the Badgers ranked 20th nationally and that seems reasonable. The roster has all the general markings of a team about to improve significantly. The question is whether players like Hepburn can elevate to All-Big Ten caliber. If so, this team should be good enough to compete for a top spot in the Big Ten.