Aiming for Bigger Heights

His stats are dominant and his leadership skills are undeniable. So when the preseason All-Big Ten lists was announced, it was no surprise to see Wisconsin senior Jon Leuer on the list. With his Badgers again off the conference's radar, Leuer is hoping his work this season will lead him to a second Big Ten regular season championship.

CHICAGO – Nobody needed to reassure Bo Ryan that Jon Leuer was a good basketball player. The tenth year Wisconsin head coach sees the work ethic and dedication every day in practice, so he was not overly surprised to hear Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright talk so glowingly about the senior's work with Team USA basketball over the summer.

On the same accord, Leuer doesn't feel the Badgers' 23-win season and finishing one game short of a Big Ten title was a shock at all, even though many national publications picked Wisconsin to finish as low as seventh in the ultra-competitive Big Ten Conference.

"We never feel like we are a surprise team," Leuer said. "We have high expectations every year and one of our goals every year is to win the Big Ten. We definitely weren't a surprise to us."

Early indications suggest that a high conference finish by the Badgers will be a surprise once again. Despite being ranked No.24 in the coaches' poll, Wisconsin was not picked to finish in the top three of the preseason media poll that was released at the Crowne Plaza Chicago Hotel.

Coming off its second consecutive Final Four appearance, Michigan State was selected to win the regular-season title with Ohio State and Purdue picked to finish second and third, respectively.

However, those same indications suggest that Leuer will be an important part to Wisconsin's success, as if Badgers fans needed the conformation. Leuer was named to the Big Ten's preseason all-conference team, joined by Illinois guard Demetri McCamey, Purdue center/forward JaJuan Johnson, Purdue guard E'Twaun Moore and Michigan State guard Kalin Lucas, who was named the preseason player of the year.

"Those are some great players and it's an honor to be included in that group," Leuer said. "They are great players that have proven themselves, but it also means that we all have to prove it on the court."

Leuer certainly earned his spot in the selective group by the amount of work he put into his junior season. Leading UW with 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, Leuer scored in double figures in 20 of 24 games, pulled down six or more boards in 12 of 24 games and raised his averages from 8.8 ppg and 3.8 rpg his sophomore year to 14.8 ppg and 5.8 rpg his junior year.

He did all that, but it could have been more had Leuer not broken a bone in his non-shooting wrist that cost him nine conference games. The Badgers went 6-3 without Leuer and even registered a win over No.5 Michigan State, but struggled in the post in their three losses, results that kept the Badgers from a conference title.

"It was frustrating to sit on the bench and watch my teammates," Leuer said. "We had all worked so hard to get to that point and we were competing for a championship. It was tough, and that first game back, I might have tried to do too much. After that, I composed myself and started to play basketball the right way."

The journey started with his performance in the NCAA Tournament (a combined 43 points and 12 rebounds in 78 minutes) and continued when he was selected to train against the USA National Team. Leuer competed against post players Tyson Chandler and Lamar Odom in Las Vegas, and then was invited for a second tour of duty in New York.

The high praise from Wright stemmed from Leuer, who followed his Wisconsin training by diving for loose balls, playing aggressive defense and doing the little things right.

"Jon was smart in that he went there with the idea that he could learn something and get better," said Ryan. "Some guys go there to prove they can beat the world, get a contract and get this or get noticed. He went there with the idea that he knew that he was going to try to help those guys get better, and he did, and he was there to listen. They just loved him for that, because he knows how important scout teams are.

"That's why he was so impressive to the individuals there because he got better as he went along. He really took the experience where he going to being something away from it and help when he can."

Not only did it make the best players in the world better, it allowed the Orono, MN, native to pick up some new tricks that has made him a tougher player and made his front court pick up the pace. "Jon annoys me, to be honest," sophomore Mike Bruesewitz said. "I hate guarding Jon. He came back from that and he's tough. That's the best way to describe it. He's just a tough match up. He annoys me when I have to play defense on him because I try to get in good position, get my hand in his face and the ball goes through the net. ‘Really? Again?'

"His confidence has gone through the roof and he's really playing at a high level. He's making us pick up our game to compete with that."

Wisconsin will have to replace senior guards Jason Bohannon and Trevon Hughes, a duo that averaged 29.3 points per game. Even so, there is confidence in junior guard Jordan Taylor (the conference leader in assist-to-turnover ratio last season) and a front court that returns Leuer, Bruesewitz, seniors Keaton Nankivil and Tim Jarmusz, making them one of the deepest in the conference.

"Every off season, you want to get better in a lot of areas and conditioning was definitely one of them," Leuer said. "We got better on the hill and in the weight room lifting, which definitely helps doing things in the paint. We are all working hard right now and we feel that one of our strengths this year will be our front line."

The attention Leuer received Thursday shows what many are expecting: that a solid senior season will make him move up on many scouts NBA Draft boards. His mindset says what fans already know: he's focused on adding a second Big Ten championship ring to his finger.

"We know what we have right in front of us," Leuer said. "If you don't' play well this year, that stuff doesn't happen. You try to take it one day at a time and try to get better."

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