Season Preview: The Wisconsin Badgers

In the fifth edition of the Season Preview, Brumby looks at the Wisconsin Badgers. The major question for Bo Ryan and his coaching staff is how they are going to replace the loss of point guard Devin Harris. Their answer will definitely be the Badger front court consisting of Mike Wilkinson, Alando Tucker, and Brian Butch. Read more to see what is expected from Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers.

The Wisconsin Badgers are coming into the 2004-2005 season with arguably the best front court in the Big Ten. The Badgers are lead by senior forward Mike Wilkinson on the inside, but he is joined by a lot of new talent including two players that red shirted last season. The question that surrounds the Badgers is how they are going to replace the presence of last season's Big Ten Player of the Year and Dallas Mavericks rookie Devin Harris.

Harris started all 96 games of his career at Wisconsin, and he left an indelible mark on the Wisconsin basketball program. Last season Harris led Wisconsin in scoring and assists, and he averaged just over four rebounds a game, only lower than Mike Wilkinson and Zach Morley. Harris played an average of 36.3 minutes every game and accounted for 28.5% of the Wisconsin offense.

Devin Harris 19.5 4.3 4.4 45.9 79.2 37.3
Wisconsin 68.5 32.8 13.3 44.7 71.9 33.8

Replacing Harris' presence on the court became even more difficult for Bo Ryan when Boo Wade took a leave of absence from the Wisconsin basketball team to deal with some personal issues. Now, instead of looking to replace Devin Harris and having a known commodity to do it in Boo Wade, Bo Ryan is looking to replace his three top guards from the previous season.

In Wisconsin's first exhibition game, Wisconsin played three different players at the point guard position, senior Sharif Chambliss (a transfer from Penn State who sat out last season and is recovering from a torn ACL in March), sophomore Kammron Taylor, and freshman Michael Flowers. According to Ryan in their first exhibition game they had an "average night." The three players combined for 18 points and 4 assists. If the first exhibition game is any predictor for the future replacing the production of Devin Harris in the back court will be a tall task for Bo Ryan and his Badgers.

They key to figuring out who is going to replace Devin Harris is to not look solely in the back court, but to look in the Badger front court. To go along with Pre-Season All Big Ten Team member Mike Wilkinson, Wisconsin is returning forward Zach Morley and center Andreas Helmigk from their front line last season. In fact, the only key player from their front court last season that is not returning is center Dave Mader. The new faces in the Badger front court include red shirt freshman Brian Butch (a McDonald's All American in 2003), red shirt sophomore Alando Tucker (who is returning after sitting out last season due to injury), and freshman center Greg Steiemsma.

For the first time in his tenure as Wisconsin's coach, the focus of his vaunted swing offense will not be a guard (Kirk Penney and Devin Harris), it will be the post players, specifically Mike Wilkinson. Outside of Harris, Wilkinson was the only player to average in double figures at 13.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. More of the offense will be run through Wilkinson, but he will have plenty of people that can take the pressure off of him.

Sophomore Alando Tucker played better than almost any one expected from him as a freshman in the Big Ten two seasons ago when he was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team and was Honorable Mention All Big Ten. Tucker is known as an explosive leaper, and one of the best offensive rebounders in the Big Ten (he lead the league in offensive rebounds during the 2002-2003 season). In Wisconsin's first exhibition game, Tucker looked like he was back at one hundred percent. He started the game, played 19 minutes, and recorded a double double, scoring 14 points and pulling down 10 rebounds.

Starting alongside Tucker and Wilkinson will most likely be 6-9 senior Andreas Helmigk. Not much is expected of him this season, and he is just keeping the position warm until red shirt freshman Brian Butch is ready to take it over full time. Last season Butch watched on the sidelines while he took in the college atmosphere and put on the extra weight that will allow him to withstand the rigors of the battles on the inside in the Big Ten. In his first action wearing the Wisconsin Badger uniform, Butch played 15 minutes, scored 13 points, and pulled down 4 rebounds.

The final piece to what is a stacked Badger front court is 6-11 freshman center Greg Stiemsma from Randolph, WI. In high school, Stiemsma's team won three straight Wisconsin state championships in his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons. He is a little different player from Brian Butch in that he is known as a shot blocker, and he will be the only true shot blocker on the Wisconsin basketball team.

In all the talk above, I realized that I did not even mention Ray Nixon. Nixon will be the utility man for Bo Ryan and the Badgers this season. He has played three different positions on the court including shooting guard, and both forward positions. With his ability to guard the opponent's shooting guard, Nixon will allow Bo Ryan to play four forwards at one time if he deems it necessary. The ability to play so many forwards is in stark contrast to many of the other teams in the Big Ten, but especially Michigan State who will be forced to line up with four guards at many times this season.

The pre-season magazines and pundits are all pointing to the loss of Devin Harris as the pre-season storyline for the Badgers, while ignoring the real story line: the emergence of what could be the best front court in the nation. In the Sporting News preview magazine, the Wisconsin front court is only ranked fifteenth in the nation, and that is way too low. It will take a while for Butch and Stiemsma to get their feet wet, but by the time the conference season rolls around there will probably not be a better front court in the Big Ten than Wisconsin's.

Last season, the Badgers were a very efficient team offensively. That can be tied down to two different things: (1) the methodical precisions that they used to tear apart opposing defenses in the half court and (2) Devin Harris. The offensive fundamentals that fans and opponents both saw from Wisconsin will not change, but they will be missing a guard that can take the ball and create a good shot at any time he pleases. The loss of Harris will no doubt diminish the Badger's effectiveness on the offensive side of the ball, but the effect will not be as much as most are assuming.

Pace Factor 60.64
Defensive Efficiency 93.03
Offensive Efficiency 112.19
+/- Differential 19.16
Points per Shot Attempt 1.102
Points Per Possession 1.12

I think Badger fans should expect to see all of these numbers decrease from where they were last season. The near twenty point differential between the offensive and defensive efficiencies led the Big Ten last season, and was among the best in the country (in power conferences only Duke and Connecticut had a larger differential). Don't expect these numbers to go down by too much, but the differential should fall back to the mean and be anywhere from twelve to fifteen, which is indicative of a team that is among the twenty best in the country.

The question still remains who will play point guard for the Badgers, but in the end I think that job will eventually get handed to Sharif Chambliss. Chambliss was an Honorable Mention All Big Ten team member in both of his sophomore and junior seasons at Penn State before he decided to leave Happy Valley for Madison. Once his knee is completely healed, which should be by the time the conference season starts, the Badgers will have found their point guard.

Season Prediction: 11-5 - Even without Devin Harris, Wisconsin will compete for the Big Ten Championship in 2005. The Badgers have the best front court in the conference, but they also have to face both Michigan State and Illinois twice on the season and have to travel to Ann Arbor on the season.

Predicted All Big Ten Team Members
First Team: Mike Wilkinson
Second Team: Alando Tucker
Honorable Mention: Sharif Chambliss, Brian Butch
All-Freshman Team: Brian Butch

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