INDIANAPOLIS – Over the last two seasons, the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team has taken the program to never-before-reached heights with a group of experienced seniors and talented underclassmen.
That’s the thought on the minds of many fans after the best season in program history ended six points short of the team’s ultimate goal of a national championship, losing 68-63 to Duke in the national finals Monday night.
The veteran-laden roster that led Wisconsin to a program record 36 wins, a sweep of the Big Ten titles and the first No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament is in for an overhaul. Gone is national player of the year Frank Kaminsky, who set a single-season program scoring record with 732 points. UW will also have to replace its unquestioned leader in Josh Gasser, a confident point guard in Traevon Jackson and a quality bench player in Duje Dukan.
Wisconsin was successful over the past two years because of the bond and brotherhood that group helped create through adversity, injuries and hard work.
“You remember the wins and losses, but you remember the bus rides, the road trips, all that stuff more,” said Gasser. “That’s tough. We wanted this bad. It’s almost shocking it didn’t happen. I truly believed we were going to win. It looked like we were gonna. It just didn’t happen.”
And that might not be all. After scoring 115 points in six NCAA tournament games while shooting 57.1 percent from the field, junior Sam Dekker is listed on NBA mock drafts as a potential late lottery pick. Dekker would certainly benefit from another college season to get stronger, improve his shooting and refine the holes in his game, but his professional stock may never be higher than it is right now.
“Right now I’m worried about our team, getting home, thanking our fans and getting over this with my boys,” said Dekker. “Once we get back and get home, and things settle down, a decision will be made.”
If Dekker returns, Wisconsin has to replace 46.5 percent of its scoring, 44.2 percent of its rebounds, 49.8 percent of its assists, 55.9 percent of its blocks and 51.7 percent of its steals.
If Dekker leaves, which wouldn’t be surprising, those numbers spike to 65.7 percent scoring, 60.1 percent rebounding, 59.5 percent assists, 70.1 percent blocks and 63.8 percent steals.
Either way, the core of a team that went 66-12 and made two Final Fours over the past two seasons will have to be replaced.
“These guys have taken us on a phenomenal ride,” said associate head coach Greg Gard. “To be able to be on this ride with these guys has been an unbelievable experience, something we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives.”
So, what will Ryan do in his 15th season in Madison to keep his streak of 15 consecutive top four finishes in the Big Ten conference alive? For starters, UW will build on returning starters Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig.
Hayes took a big leap in his production over the summer and finished the year third on the team in scoring (12.4) and second in rebounding (6.2). He didn’t attempt a single 3-point shot as a true freshman but finished 40-for-101 (39.6 percent) from the perimeter this season. Saying he’s nowhere ready for the NBA, expect Hayes to make another jump.
Koenig started the final 24 games on the season and performed admirably, finishing with 98 assists to 33 turnovers. He developed from a jump-shooting point guard to one that attacked the rim more often. His aggressiveness will only get better as his confidence and strength grows.
After that, however, there are more questions than answers. Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown, along with Dukan, were the main sources of bench production over the final three months of the season but neither played in the national finals, a sign that both have a lot of work to do to be trusted in key moments.
Showalter was a spark off the bench but averaged only 7.6 minutes per game. He gained valuable experience after redshirting in 2013-14 but it’s unknown if he can be effective for 20-plus minutes.
Brown will be a junior and was more of a liability than an asset, seeing his minutes decline down the stretch as he struggled with his defense and over thinking on the court. At 6-8, Brown has the makings of a good post player but will need to make a substantial leap in his game, similar to the one Kaminsky did between his second and third year, after averaging just 6.3 minutes and 1.8 points per game.
Regardless, the lack of post depth is a main reason why UW signed two post players – Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas – and is expected to sign Khalil Iverson this month. It won’t be a surprise to see at least one of them contribute.
The Badgers also have a pair of players coming off redshirt seasons who could see considering time, possibly even in the starting lineup. Jordan Hill – a redshirt sophomore next season - is a combo guard and is chomping at the bit to play, frustrated that he spent the season sitting instead of playing. He channeled that aggression on the scout team to make dramatic improvements to his game, which consists of always going full out.
The only scholarship player in the 2014 recruiting class, 6-9 Ethan Happ drew rave reviews from the coaching staff for his ability to go toe-to-toe with Kaminsky in practice. Once considered a player who possibly needed a few years to develop, Happ is a confident passer and a strong post player, two things UW needs after losing Kaminsky.
Wisconsin won over 30 games, swept the Big Ten titles and made the Final Four, but the Badgers didn’t achieve their ultimate goal of winning a national championship. That has become the standard now for Wisconsin basketball, which means the group staying behind has a lot of work to do in order to reach that point.
“I hope Wisconsin basketball can keep this going,” said Gasser. “The attitude, the culture has got to be accepting nothing less than Big Ten championships, national championships, competing for them. I think we’ve set that staple.
“It’s been an unbelievable program since Coach Ryan has got here. He’s done a great job, and I hope we have taken it to the next level and continue this.”