MADISON – This year is really about “Make ‘em Believe.”
That three-word phrase was the rallying cry for Wisconsin hoops a season ago, who coined the saying as motivation to back up lofty preseason expectations for a program returning a lot of fire power. Suffice it to say they succeeded, as Wisconsin swept the Big Ten titles, advanced to the Final Four for the second straight season and came six points short of a national title.
There’s no question now that the Badgers are in retooling mode. With consensus national player of the year Frank Kaminsky and West Regional most valuable player Sam Dekker off to the NBA as first-round selections, not to mention seniors Duje Dukan, Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson graduating and continuing their basketball careers, Wisconsin has plenty of opportunities that need to be filled.
In all, Wisconsin has to replace 65.7 percent of its scoring, 60.1 percent rebounding, 59.5 percent assists, 70.1 percent blocks and 63.8 percent steals from this season. Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan – possibly in his final season - has never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten and has never missed a NCAA tournament during his UW tenure.
“Everyone is expecting a down year, which is news to us,” said redshirt sophomore guard Jordan Hill. “We’re not thinking that way at all. I know it’s early, but Bo Ryan’s teams only get better as the year goes on. Our team has been getting better by leaps and bounds every day.”
And this year will be a youth movement, as walk-on Jordan Smith is the only senior on the roster to go along with five juniors, four sophomores and seven freshmen who will all have an opportunity to step into major roles.
“Opportunity, that’s a great word for everybody, especially for me,” said junior forward Vitto Brown. “Everybody has a chance this year and that’s what I love about it.”
The cupboard isn’t completely bare, including returning some veterans at key positions.
Junior guard Bronson Koenig started the final 24 games of the season for Wisconsin and averaged 11.5 points per game in that role. Koenig led the Big Ten with a 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio (98-33) among players with at least 90 assists in 2015 and was a preseason All-Big Ten selection.
Joining him on that list was fellow junior Nigel Hayes, who jumped from Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year as a freshman to a 40-game starter last season. Hayes ranked third on the team in points (12.4) and second on the team in rebounds (6.2).
He’ll likely be joined in the frontcourt by redshirt freshman Ethan Happ, who was the only scholarship player in the 2014 recruiting class and was lauded by his teammates and coaches last season for his progression going up against Kaminsky every day.
“Frank Kaminsky waited for his opportunity playing behind Jared Berggren,” said Ryan. “Sam Dekker playing behind Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans. Hopefully we’ll have some guys you’ll asking about a couple years from now asking ‘Where did that guy come from?’”
One of those players who could surprise is true freshman Khalil Iverson, one of five 2015 scholarship players on the roster. A late sign by Wisconsin in the spring after having a monster senior season, which included a handful of triple-doubles, Iverson has been aggressive in practice and showed off his athleticism on more than a few occasions with some thunderous dunks.
With his size, long reach and length, he looks more like a N.F.L. receiver than a college basketball player.
“The steps he’s taken, he’s just become a more complete player,” said associate head coach Greg Gard, who recruited Iverson. “A year ago he was all athlete and less basketball player. He started to fine tune some of those skills and understand the game … I think he’s just scratching the surface with how good he can be.”
Wisconsin came at No.17 in the preseason coaches’ poll, one of five Big Ten teams listed. Maryland – the favorite to win the Big Ten in just its second year in the league – ranked third nationally. The Badgers will host their annual Red-White Scrimmage on Sunday, host their lone exhibition game against UW-River Falls Nov.4 and open the season against Western Illinois Nov.13.
The latter is a day where UW will hang another banner from the rafters of the Kohl Center, a sign of the tremendous amount of work that needs to be done between then and March.