LAST SEASON – The greatest year in modern Wisconsin basketball history ended in disappointment, with a loss to Duke in the national title game. That came after perhaps the greatest win in program history, beating undefeated Kentucky in a national semifinal game. It was tough for the Badgers to not finish out with a championship, given what this team had accomplished in winning and winning and winning with a target on its back all year long, but when you look back at it, there’s a lot to be admired about that team. They were a veteran group who seemed single minded in pursuit of their goals but yet were a likeable bunch of kids who I found easy to root for, led by national POY Frank Kaminsky. Offensively, it was as versatile a team as you’ll find…most of the time, all five guys on the floor had three point range and all five guys (including the 7foot Kaminsky) could take you off the dribble as well. They were often a fun team to watch, something which hasn’t always been said about Bo Ryan’s teams over the years.

The Badgers lost a lot. Kaminsky is gone. So is Josh Gasser, a versatile guard. Trae Jackson departs but due to his injury problems, that loss is perhaps mitigated a bit as Wisconsin learned to play without him. Sam Dekker left a year early for the NBA and that wasn’t any kind of surprise, as his combination of size and athleticism combined with a great skill set make him a natural pro IMO. Backup big man Duje Dukan also departs and he emerged as a quality rotation guy late in his Badger career. That’s a lot to overcome but this is Wisconsin and this is Bo Ryan we’re talking about.

RETURNING PLAYERS

Nigel Hayes is a 6’7″ junior who is ready IMO to assume the mantle of “go-to” guy for Wisconsin basketball. Hayes continues to develop his game and expand his capabilities…as a freshman, he was mostly a midrange and in guy on offense. Last year, he hit 40% of his threes, shooting enough to average 1 make per game. He also has a decent off the dribble element to his game and his size, strength and intelligence make him a tough post player as well. I think he’s just going to continue to get better. Yes, he’ll be the focal point and defenses will load up on him next season in ways they hadn’t previously but I expect him to handle it well. He’s a potential first team All Big Ten kind of player because of the totality of what he can do on the court. He’ll score, he’ll rebound, he’ll pass, he’ll defend and he’ll lead.

Bronson Koenig is another guy I see stepping forward into a primary role. The 6’3″ junior guard had to do some of that last season in the wake of the injury to Jackson, moving into a starting job at the point and I think the Badgers became even better with him in that spot as a result. He’s more of a convetional Ryan point guard than Jackson was, because Koenig is more efficient in his decision making…he had a 3:1 assist to TO ratio, just outstanding for a guy at that position. He’s developed into a very good shooter and I think he has room to grow defensively as well. He’ll be among the better guys at that position in the league, no question.

Zak Showalter is a 6’2″ junior who may be able to move from reserve into the starting lineup next season. He’s considered to be their best perimeter defender, so that gives him a chance to play heavy minutes. He’s a good athlete and is a guy they think can improve as a shooter (he really struggled from deep last season). He played around 8 mpg last year and I wouldn’t be shocked to see that number end up somewhere between doubling and tripling. As Wisconsin fields a team with less firepower than they’ve had recently, I think Ryan is going to value guys who can guard people and Showalter has shown that ability.

Vitto Brown is another young returning player with a chance to see a significantly expanded role. The 6’8″ junior forward came in with some expectations but hasn’t quite earned Ryan’s full trust up until now, but that moment may be coming. He’s yet to show a diversified offensive game but he does have size, strength and a willingness to use both to bang in the paint. Whether it’s as a starter or reserve, I expect him to be firmly in UW’s rotation. He’s not the kind of versatile big man we’re used to seeing in Madison but I think he brings enough to the table for Ryan to feel he needs to be a big part of this team.

Riley Dearring is a 6’5″ sophomore who will contend with Showalter for a starting role at an off guard spot or perhaps alongside him at a small forward. He played very limited minutes in his redshirt freshman season, only seeing action in 15 games. Yet, we’ve seen guys in similar circumstances explode onto the scene before in Madison and I suspect Dearring will surprise people next year in terms of how effective he can be. I’m not predicting stardom but I do think he’ll be able to provide some quality minutes due to his length and athleticism.

Jordan Hill is a 6’3″ redshirt sophomore who will provide backup minutes to Koenig at the point. Again, Wisconsin has made enough good use of redshirts in the past to suggest to me that Hill will likely benefit as well. They like his size and strength at the position and though he’s struggled some with his shot when he has seen minutes in Madison, his primary role will be to run the offense and defend and he seems well equipped to handle those responsibilities.

Ethan Happ is a 6’9″ 230lbs redshirt freshman who has people very excited around the Badger program. He’s added a lot of good weight and strength since arriving on campus and most expect him to step into a starting role immediately next season. Unlike Brown, Happ fits the cliche of the Badger big man to a “t.” He’s big and physical but reportedly has range out to the three point line. He’s certainly not going to provide everything that Kaminsky did by any stretch, but I expect him to be a productive player and to at least give Ryan the kind of inverted offense possibillities he likes to have available to him.