The Badgers had a veteran team which was favored to win the Big Ten and perhaps make a deep run in March. Yet, things didn’t seem to jell quite the way most expected during the regular season. They lost twice in the non conference to Creighton and UNC, but the losses were both by double digits. The Badgers got off to a 10-1 start in the league but went 2-5 down the stretch to finish at 12-6 and well back of league champion Purdue. However, in post season play, UW seemed to finally find themselves. They reached the Big Ten Tournament title game before falling to Michigan, but that seemed to provide something of a springboard as they reached the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament before falling by a point to Florida in a heartbreaking loss.
So in the end, while the regular season didn’t quite meet expectations, the March performance in Tournament play was about on par for a veteran group that found its game when it needed it most.
Bronson Koenig – The 6’3″ senior guard was banged up at times during his senior year but he still led the team in scoring at 14.5ppg. He shot well, played reliable defense most of the time and was a steady ball handling presence at the point, though he was only 3rd on the team in assists. What will be most remembered by Badger fans will be his remarkable shooting in clutch situations (as a fan of an opposing team, no player in recent Big Ten history made me more nervous with the ball in his hands in a tight game than Koenig) and 13 NCAA Tournament wins over his 4 year Badger career.
Nigel Hayes – For most of the season, Hayes seemed to figure out that the way he played as a junior just wouldn’t get it done for this team. He limited his 3 point shooting, played within himself and the team won most of the time. Late in the season, he started to get outside of that and both his play and the teams suffered as a result. Still, overall he had a bit of a bounceback final campaign, averaging 14 ppg and 6.6 rpg while finishing second on the team in assists. When he played like a complementary guy, Hayes was great.
Zak Showalter – The 6’3″ senior guard and defensive stalwart averaged 8.3 ppg as a senior, hitting just under 40% of his 3s and generally played a very smart game overall. Showalter was a perfect example of how much a “role player” can mean to a team, as there’s no way Wisconsin reaches the Sweet Sixteen either of the last two seasons without his play.
Vitto Brown – Brown didn’t have a great senior season, slumping to 32% from deep last year. That hurt his ability to impact games as much as he had done previously.
Jordan Hill – Hill lost playing time last year after he’d emerged as a solid backup point guard the year prior, and he elected to transfer after the season. He averaged 9.9 mpg last season and possibly would have seen that slip even further had he elected to remain in Madison.
Ethan Happ – Happ is one of the most productive two way players in America as he enters his junior season. The 6’9″ 5 man averaged 14 ppg, 9 rpg and led the team in blocks and steals. He shot 59% from the floor and is one of the better finishers at the rim in the conference. What separates him from the better big men in Badger history is shooting from outside of the 5 foot range, specifically the lack of even a midrange jumper and at the free throw line. The latter part is more significant, because Happ draws a lot of fouls but only shot 50% at the stripe last year. If he could even uptick that to 70%, he and his team would benefit tremendously.
D’Mitrick Trice – A 6 foot sophomore and the brother of MSU’s Travis, Trice played a major role as a freshman off the Badger bench and essentially leapfrogged Jordan Hill in the Wiscy rotation. He’s likely to emerge as a starter this year. Trice shot 42% from deep, 38% overall and was solid as a point guard in terms of running the offense. The question will be how he functions as more of a primary guy as opposed to a role player, but his ball skills, smarts and toughness should serve him well.
Khalil Iverson – Iverson is an ultra athletic 6’4″ wing who is an uncommonly explosive physical player in this program, where such players haven’t often been featured. Iverson could stand to improve his perimeter shooting but at a minimum he’ll play a role with that athletic ability and motor helping defensively, on the glass and in transition.
Charles Thomas – Thomas is a 6’8″ junior forward who was supposed to have a similar game to Vitto Brown but has yet to be able to break through into consistent minutes. If he can provide that sort of inside/outside production, he could carve out a role for himself in the Badger rotation but there seem to be some guys who appear more likely to grab that at this point.
Brevin Pritzl – Pritzl is a 6’3″ sophomore who hasn’t been healthy for much of his two year Badger experience thus far. He came to Madison with a reputation as a big time shooter and if he can stay on the court, that’s what they expect to see from him as a zone busting wing. This is a big year for Pritzl…minutes and a role are available but he needs to seize the opportunity quickly.
Alex Illikaenen – Illikaenen is a 6’8″ junior who is another UW big man who came to Madison with the rep of having a versatile offensive game along with size and strength enough to make an impact inside. Thus far, he’s had a difficult time playing more than a bit part but he’ll be a factor in determining who starts at the 4 this season. Something tells me he’s likely to take a step up this year, as he now has some experience under his belt and has shown flashes of an all around game.
Andy Van Vliet – Some expected the 6’11” sophomore to emerge last season after taking a redshirt, but it didn’t happen that way. Still, he’s a guy the Badgers believe has the potential to play a role at some point during his stay in Madison and should get a legitimate opportunity at regular minutes.
Brad Davison – Davison seems to be sent from central casting to be a Wisconsin guard. He was a late riser in recruiting circles but after a huge spring in EYBL last year, he received multiple high major offers and elected to commit to Wisconsin. He reportedly has point guard skills and has good size for the position at 6’3″ but his big claim to fame is as a shooter. There are some questions about his athleticism and his defensive ability right out of the chute, but I expect him to play a role immediately for a team which could use some perimeter punch.
Kobe King – King is a 6’3″ wing who slid in the rankings a little bit as he went along in his HS career but is still seen as a guy who could play early for the Badgers. He’s a better athlete than Davison and has a good skill set. With him, it’s going to be about adding strength and learning how to play defense at the high major level. He too has an excellent chance to earn a rotation spot.
Nathan Reuvers – A 6’10” 4 man, Reuvers needs to add strength but otherwise he fits the usual profile of a Badger big man, as he reportedly has good range and an overall solid set of ball skills. I think it’s possible he could redshirt but he appears to be skilled enough to get a shot to play a significant role if older Badgers don’t seize the opportunity for minutes.
This looks like a risky pick, putting a team losing 4 starters in 6th ahead of some teams with much more returning. It’ll be a year which will demonstrate whether Greg Gard has the same ability to reload and develop a contender from a largely new group that Bo Ryan displayed for years. The good news is that Gard had a little bigger playing group than Ryan typically used, so guys like Trice, Iverson, etc. played more minutes than many players had in similar situations under Ryan.
Happ is a great player to build around, but Wisconsin does need to find more scoring, particularly from the guard spot. I think Pritzl is likely to step up but there’s a real opportunity for the freshmen Davison and King to earn significant roles early on as well. Trice is also going to have to provide some scoring from the point.
This is partially a pick based on anticipated improvement and impact from new players and partially respect for the program. I think the Badgers will return to the Tournament but if they don’t get the kind of improvement needed from several key players, there are a few teams I have behind them who could leapfrog the Badgers pretty easily.