MADISON - A month away from the season opener against Northern Kentucky, Wisconsin basketball – fresh off its first Final Four appearance since 2000 – is already at work. Projected to be a top 10, perhaps a top five, team when the preseason rankings come out, the Badgers are already heavy favorites to win the Big Ten regular season championship and a handful of teams in the conversation to cut down the nets at this year’s Final Four in Indianapolis.
Returning seven of its top eight scorers from last season, Wisconsin started practicing October 3 and opened practices up to the media this week for the first time. Taking into the account the very small sample size we were privy to, here are my takeaways in the early goings of Badger basketball.
*As previously reported, sophomore Nigel Hayes is down a good 15 pounds and clocking in around 235. It’s a good weight for him, still allowing him to be active in the low block and giving him a touch more athleticism. It’ll be interesting to see how much better he can handle opposing bigs this year.
Hayes said in an offseason interview that he didn’t need to shoot 3-point shots last season with a player like Ben Brust on the roster, a main reason why he didn’t attempt a single perimeter shot last season. Don’t expect that to happen this year, as Hayes looks just as comfortable on the perimeter as he does underneath the basket. If Hayes can hit from the perimeter, a really good offensive team will be even better.
Of the group, Hayes appeared to be one of the few who didn’t gain some considerable size in the offseason under second year strength coach Erik Helland.
*Coming off his redshirt season, Zak Showalter should be in the mix for time in the rotation at guard. Showlater looks leaner, physically imposing and is comfortable playing point guard with the ball in his hands. During the portion of practice open to the media, Showalter made a number of solid passes to Frank Kaminsky in the post, resulting in easy points above the rim. During 5-on-5, Showalter threaded the needle to a driving Jordan Hill, who drew a foul on a layup attempt. Later he out muscled four defenders for a rebound. After Bronson Koenig, Showalter will likely be the next guard off the bench.*Hill, who played a total of 25 minutes last season, has developed an outside shot to go along with is trademark aggressive defense. Hill said during the Final Four that he was happy with his decision to play last season as a freshman gave him a taste of what he needed to do to become a better player. Early returns say it has started to pay off.
*Expect Duje Dukan to take a step forward with his production this year after he played in all 38 games (a first in his career), averaging 8.1 minutes a game. Now up to 6-10, Dukan appears to have grown more comfortable with his inside the game. He battled down in the low block on both ends of the floor and seems more than willing to mix it up. Known more for his outside shot, Dukan shot 50 percent on the year, but only averaged 2.1 attempts a game. Expect that latter number to go up.
*Sam Dekker’s defense is improving, likely picking up a few tidbits along the way during his stops at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy in Washington, D.C., and at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas. Dekker has added significant muscle and has even grown a couple inches, which has added some length to his defensive wing span. He rotated well and showed a willingness to fight through screens.
“I definitely learned a lot from both guys and all the other players there,” Dekker told BadgerNation this month. “There’s a lot of one-on-one scenarios in there, just free-flowing play, and realizing when you play at your own pace and play at your own speed and not let guys speed you up mentally and physically, you can be a lot better.”
*Speaking of weight fluctuations, Riley Dearring has added a little bit to his frame after redshirting this season. He evidently has gotten stronger and is starting to learn the fundamentals of Wisconsin’s program considering he stood his ground, using a good defensive stance, and took a charge against Dukan on the low block. He still has to get stronger, but the makings of a good player are there.
*After wearing a knee brace throughout last season to protect his surgically-repaired knee, Josh Gasser has ditched the brace and is moving like he did pre-injury, a really good sign for the Badgers, especially when he's aggressive driving to the basket.
“He’s tired of talking about it,” Ryan said last month about Gasser. “He’s a player. He’s ready to go. He would much rather defer to the media talking about other people.”
*Of the three freshmen, Ethan Happ looks the most put together, but still would likely benefit from a redshirt considering the crowded front court. He’s a good shooter and a tall 6-9 presence in the post. On consecutive drills, he got a second-chance bucket over the head of Gasser and tied up Koenig on a drive to the bucket. He still needs to smooth out his shot delivery, but he has all the makings of a solid player for UW with his ability to be active around the basket and fight for loose balls.
* Fresh off being named a unanimous pick to the Big Ten Network’s preseason team and named the site’s preseason player of the year, Frank Kaminsky got a rude greeting at the start of 5-on-5 play. Attempting to block Bronson Koenig drive to the bucket, Kaminsky’s chin caught Koenig’s forehead. Kaminsky laid on the court for several minutes before walking off under his own power and being attended to by the training staff. He returned to the court a short time later.