Obviously, this makes MSU #2, and I’ll deal with them in an expanded post next. For now, my pick for Big Ten champ resides in Madison.
LAST SEASON – To say it was a wild ride is underselling the reality. The year began wth Bo Ryan indicating this would be his final season…then he suggested he might not retire after all when it appeared that AD Barry Alverez would not give the job to Bo’s hand picked successor, longtime assistant Greg Gard. The Badgers got off to a rough start, as they were only 7-5 at the time of Bo’s second and final retirement in the middle of December. Gard took the job as an interim and some thought the timing reflected a Bo power move, that the only way his guy could get the job would be to get him a shot as interim. Gard engineered a tremendous turnaround, as the Badgers went 15-8 overall under his leadership, including a 12-6 league record and a run to the Sweet Sixteen before falling to Notre Dame. UW’s play left Alvarez wtih no choice but to make Gard the permanent head coach. Gard kept some things intact but he did shift things a bit from where Bo had them. He went back to Ryan’s Swing offense more frequently, something Bo had not used as much in recent years. He also expanded the playing group, with players like Jordan Hill and Alex Illikainen seeing expanded roles under Gard.
The Badgers return everyone after Nigel Hayes opted to pull out of the NBA Draft. Thus, it’s not a reach to label them the preseason favorite to win the conference, something they did often under Gard’s predecessor.
THIS SEASON – Bronson Koenig is a 6’3″ guard who has become Mr. Clutch on this team. While he shot well overall anyway (39% overall and from three), he seems to have developed a knack for making big shots at an even better clip. That kind of mental toughness has and will be a big part of this team’s success. Koenig is not really a point guard…he was second in the team in assists and didn’t come close to a 2:1 A/TO ratio, something which is normally taken as a given for Badger guards. He’s a decent but not stellar defender. You can look at some individual components of his game and find some things lacking, but Koenig is a guy who makes winning plays at big moments and that plus his experience should put him among the more impact fuel guards in the conference.
6’3″ senior Zak Showalter is the other starter and has also emerged as a tough guy in the clutch. He’s a better individual defender than Koenig and is essentially in the same ballpark as a playmaker. He’s a good but not great shooter but good is good enough to force teams to respect him. He also carries himself with some toughness and attitude, something many of Ryan’s best teams had. He’ll never be a “wow” kind of player but he’s exactly the kind of guy Wisconsin has built its program over the last 15-20 years around.
Off the bench, sophomore Jordan Hill saw his role grow under Gard and he earned it. He’s got potential to be more of a true PG than either of the starters, though he does need to still refine his decision making a bit. I think he gives this team a bit of an athletic boost as well. Wisconsin will also get back the services of 6’3″ redshirt freshman Brevin Pritzl. He came in with a shooter’s reputation but injuries kept him on the shelf last season. If he’s full healthy, he should be able to earn some rotation minutes if his shot can meet expectations, as UW could use a sniper, something none of their returning guards really are.
Wiscy also added a pair of late backcourt recruits. MSU fans will recognize the last name of D’Mitrick Trice. The younger brother of Travis, Trice was a later riser after a year spent in prep school at IMG in Florida…he ended up with offers from UW and OSU among others and opted to become a Badger. D’Mitrick is a little smaller than Travis at 5’11” but may be reminscent of his older brother in that he can both shoot and run an offense. Given that Wiscy doesn’t have a lot of true point guard options, he might well sneak into the rotation early. I don’t think he has the upside we saw from Trav as a senior, but he could be a nice addition as a program player. Aleem Ford was a teammate of Trice’s at IMG and the 6’7″ player has a nice combination of athleticism and perimeter touch. I would expect he’ll need time to gain strength but he could be a guy who finds his way into the rotation down the line.
Inside, Hayes’ return was major for the Badgers but it doesn’t come without reason for caution. I thought despite his raw stats improving that Hayes actually regressed a bit as a junior, and it seemed to me that he was distracted, unfocused, or perhaps just thinking a lot about life after college. He showed maturity in making what seems unquestionably to be the right decision in returning to Madison, given that he was unlikely to be drafted, but I have to say that some of the comments I’ve read from him wouldn’t make me feel great if I were a Badger fan. The bottom line is that Hayes was great when he focused more on interior play. His three point percentage went under 30% and his shot selection was terrible at times. I thought he also was more indifferent on defense than I’d noticed previously. At his best, Nigel Hayes is a B version of what Draymond Green was in college. He can do some of everything, but he has to focus more on the things he does best (operate in the post, get to the line, pass smartly and check with intelligence AND desire) than he did last year. If he does that, he can be Big Ten POY.
Ethan Happ was hyped two years ago as the next great Badger big man, during a redshirt season which had often been used under Ryan for young bigs. Sure enough, Happ mostly delivered on that promise, averaging 12.4ppg and 7.9rpg. He’s got a great motor and some real toughness and willingness to mix things up inside. He also finishes well in traffic and is one of the better offensive rebounders in the conference. For Happ to take the next step, he has to make better decisions with the ball and expand his range. He’s already a very good player but if he can develop in those areas, he could become more than that.
Vitto Brown is a 6’8″ senior who struggled previously to get consistent rotation minutes but finally emerged last season, becoming a solid starter for Gard’s team. He averaged 9.7ppg and 5 rpg and was a perimeter threat on offense. Brown doesn’t get a lot done in the paint and he’s an inconsistent defender, but he’s now an experienced guy and a worthy 5th starter for this team.
Wiscy has good depth inside. 6’4″ sophomore Kahlil Iverson might be the most explosive athlete Ryan ever recruited. The trick now is to turn him into a well rounded basketball player. He doesn’t yet have a reliable perimeter game but if he can add that to his arsenal, he could become a real asset. As it stands, he’ll help via athleticism and effort, both of which he uses with regularity. Charlie Thomas is a 6’8″ soph who has some similarities to Brown, except he’s not as experienced and thus not quite as productive yet. They think in time he can become a reliable deep threat and that will increase his value and minutes. Alex Illikainen is a 6’9″ soph who has the look of many Badger big men before him. He didn’t put up big numbers and his deep shot wasn’t quite as good as anticipated, but you can easily imagine his developmental curve ending with him as a big part of this team by the time he’s a senior, and he’ll help off the bench now as a younger guy.
The one potential impact newcomer is a soph from Belgium named Andy Van Vliet. Van Vliet sat out last year due to an eligibilty issue and actually lost a year of eligibility in the process, but it may have been beneficial anyway as he had time to add muscle to a 6’11” 200lbs frame. He’s already added 20lbs and may add more before next season tips off. There will be a learning curve but the word on him is that he’s a highly skilled big man who could sort of be a JV Frank Kaminsky with an ability to score insideand out, provided he’s gotten strong enough tohold position when he opts to get on the blocks.
BOTTOM LINE – One big issue facing Gard maybe how to spread minutes around. He’s returning nine guys who were double digit minute players a year ago and adds two redshirts who certainly would have been in the rotation if not for injury and eligibility issues. Keeping that many guys happy and productive is a challenge unto itself and it’ll be interesting to see how Gard handles it. This was not a problem his predecessor faced often, as Ryan tended to gravitate toward relatively tight rotations.
I think the mindset of Nigel Hayes is the biggest issue facing this team. If he can get back to the way he played as a sophomore, the Badgers are the best team in the conference. If his focus is elsewhere, as it often was last season, he may do as much harm as good for this team. Hayes is the kind of guy who is a difference maker whenhis head is screwed on right. Will it be?
I don’t think this Wisconsin team is at the level of their national title game group from two years ago. They’ll probably get some comparisons to them but that’s unfair. They don’t have a Sam Dekker and while Happ is a good young big man, he’s not near Kaminsky’s level, at least not yet. This team can win the Big Ten and they merit being named the favorite, but they’re not the overwhelming choice the ’15 team was. Overall, they need to defend better and make better decisions as a group to win this league.