It’s an abnormal beginning to the season for the Wisconsin’s men’s basketball team, long considered a program that flies under the radar and is traditionally undervalued by the national experts.
Those types of things change when a program returns seven of their top eight scorers (81.9 percent of its scoring) from a team who was a shot away from advancing to the national finals.
Wisconsin enters the season ranked fourth in the USA Today Coaches Poll and the unanimous pick to win the Big Ten by the league’s writers; high expectations thanks in large part to the Badgers losing just one starter (Ben Brust) and seeing Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker pass on the NBA. As a result, Kaminsky is the conference’s preseason player of the year and Dekker is on the preseason All-Big Ten first team.
Fans have pointed to this season as the year Wisconsin could do something special. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan points to it as another year to help a group of players to get better.
“They know there's weaknesses to shore up, and we're trying to accentuate our strengths,” Ryan said during the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago on Thursday. “Basketball is a game of momentum, a game of streaks, which we saw last year with our season.”
One of those weaknesses is accounting for the loss of Brust. Having the ability to stretch the floor and attack the glass, Brust’s biggest strength was his shooting, as he left Wisconsin as the all-time leader in career 3-point field goals made (235).
“Nobody for his size rebounded the way he did,” said Ryan. “He gave us some dimensions that might be a little difficult to replace, but we've got some guys that are trying to do that right now.”
One of those players who can add more to the offense is sophomore Nigel Hayes. Down 15 pounds from last season, Hayes has expanded his mid-range game and has shown in practice he is capable of knocking down 3-pointers. If Hayes and Kaminsky (38 percent from three last season) can consistently hit from the perimeter, Wisconsin’s offense will add another dimension considering both have the ability to drive to the basket.
Even though Kaminsky and Dekker led the team in rebounds, Brust’s 4.5 rebounds per game were best among the guards. It’s rare for some teams having a guard be such a key contributor off the glass, but Ryan likes using his big men to box out on the defensive end, allowing the guards to get the rebound and immediately transition into the offense.
The makeup of this year’s team could be Ryan’s best since the 2006-07 campaign, which reached No.1 in the country in February with senior Alando Tucker leading the way. Not only does UW have a formidable returning lineup, the Badgers’ bench is strong with Hayes, Duje Dukan and Bronson Koenig.
“They’ve had some experience, they’ve been in the mix, they’ve been under fire, so hopefully that translates into a more mature, physically and mentally, approach when they get on the court,” said Ryan, “We’re going to need that.”
Per usual, Wisconsin’s nonconference schedule is daunting. Starting the season Nov.14 at home against Northern Kentucky, Wisconsin has three true road games, hosts No.3 Duke and travels to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament, where the Badgers could play No.7 Florida and No.6 North Carolina and will be a great indicator on where this team stands against some of the top talent in the country.
“It's going to be a great venue, the best competition,” said Ryan. “So for us, we're going to do what we do, and the players are going to be finding out more about themselves ... once we start playing nonconference and preparing for the Big Ten.”
The tournament will also serve as an indicator of where some players have progressed since the end of last season, especially Dekker as a defense. Depending on how the bracket shakes out, Wisconsin could face either Oklahoma or UCLA, which ranked seventh (82.2 points a game) and 12th (81.8 points per game), respectively, last season.
“Defensively there’s times where I can be a lot better and there’s also times where I’ve gotten better at it,” Dekker said. “I think even starting with Coach. The first thing he’s going to be on me about is defense. That’s a good thing, because he knows if I can use my athleticism and my IQ on the defensive end, I’m going to be that much more of a well-rounded player.
“I have the ability to be a very good defender. I truly believe that, the coaches believe that and my teammates believe that. If I can do that, lock in and guard anybody it will make our team a lot better.”
Even though Wisconsin is coming off its deepest tournament run in 14 years, don’t expect Ryan to veer away from his process; a coaching style that helped him become the winningest coach in Wisconsin history (321-121) as he begins his 14th season in Madison.
“I've always approached every season the same way, this being my 43rd in this profession,” Ryan said. “You can't possibly think that I woke up this fall thinking, ‘oh, wow, I'm going to do something different this year.’ We're not. The coaching staff isn't. The players are the ones that put a lot of time in the offseason. The returning players, they're hoping that pays off, and that's all you can do. You can prepare, you train, you take care of business in the classroom, you put yourself in a position to be successful, and then let's play.”
Like the Badgers coaches and players, Wisconsin fans can’t wait any longer either as they anxiously await possibly the biggest season in school history.