Bronson Koenig already has experienced two painful N.C.A.A. tournament exits in his first two seasons at Wisconsi, including last year’s national championship game, but that doesn’t make what happened Friday night any easier to stomach.
In fact Koenig ranks the 61-56 heartbreaker to Notre Dame at the Wells Fargo Center worse than the 74-73 defeat to Kentucky in the national semifinals two years ago, a game where Aaron Harrison hit a crushing 3-pointer with seven seconds left.
“We should have won both of them,” Koenig said, “but this one we really threw it away with (17) turnovers.”
And while the Badgers stew heading into the offseason knowing it let a third straight Elite Eight appearance slip away, it’s not lost on the veterans how they proved many fans and pundits wrong in 2015-16, or how a young corps of players will return to a team that could be preseason top 10 for 2016-17 and primed for deep Big Ten and postseason runs.
After needing to replace 61.9 percent of the minutes, 65.7 percent scoring, 60.1 percent rebounding, 59.5 percent assists, 70.1 percent blocks and 63.8 percent steals from the national finalist team, Wisconsin is expected to return everyone from its rotation and lose only two players – senior walk-on Jordan Smith and Riley Dearring, who transferred in December.
As a result, UW will return 99.8 percent of its minutes, 99.7 of its scoring and rebounding and 100 percent of its assists and steals. Needless to say, expectations will mirror what they were two years ago with the program.
“I think we’re going to respond well from this,” juniorr Zak Showalter said. “This is going to hurt for a while. I don’t like losing. It’s not fun.”
Those number still could change, dependent on what junior Nigel Hayes decides about his future. Leading the team with 15.7 points per game. Hayes has all the tools N.B.A. executives covet (size, length and versatility) but struggled with his shot consistency after tweaking his release and still needs to add weight/strength.
In four postseason games, Hayes finished 11-for-54 (20.1 percent) and 2-for-21 (9.5 percent) from 3-point range, dropping his season shooting averages to 36.8 percent from the floor and 29.3 percent from 3-point range (worst among UW’s starting lineup).
Projected as a second-round selection in early mock drafts, Hayes and his family will sit down in the coming weeks and make a decision.
If the first-team All-Big Ten selection returns, Hayes will join a starting lineup that made considerable strides in their new roles and helped the program go 15-8 after Greg Gard took over Dec.15
Koenig will be entering his senior season having started his last 59 game, while Vitto Brown, Ethan Happ and Showalter all becoming starters for the first time. Of that projected starting lineup, only Happ won’t be a senior.
From a spark off the bench that averaged only 7.6 minutes per game a year ago, Showalter averaged 31.4 minutes (third most on the team) and shot 45 percent from the floor (second best among starters). He averaged a modest 7.5 points per game but his defense, including taking 17 charges, added a necessary dimension to the roster.
Brown averaged 9.7 points and shot a team-best 40 percent from 3-point range but will need to add a low-post game to his arsenal and become better defensively.
“We felt we could have won a national championship, just like we felt the past two years ago,” Koenig said. “Each loss in the tournament motivates us for next year … We’re going to be ready to go next year.”
Happ became the first player in 20 years at Wisconsin to be named the conference’s freshman of the year, beating out Maryland’s Diamond Stone, Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan and others. Scoring 12.4 points and averaging 7.9 rebounds per game, Happ finished the season with 10 double-doubles but has a lot of room to grow in the areas of strength and a mid-range jump shot.
After the bench rotation was limited in the 12 games under former head coach Bo Ryan, Gard took the restrictions off to give more players opportunities. That decision should build the confidence of redshirt sophomores Jordan Hill and Aaron Moesch and the influx of young talent from the 2015 recruiting class.
Forwards Alex Illikainen, Khalil Iverson and Charlie Thomas all will be a year stronger and experienced after coming off the bench, De Pere four-star shooting guard Brevin Pritzl should be fully healed from a foot injury that limited him to four minutes in one game (he should receive a medical redshirt and not lose a year of eligibility) and 6-11 forward Andy Van Vliet will return off his one-year N.C.A.A. suspension motivated to make the most of his three remaining seasons.
“I think it’s going to be really special,” Smith said of last season’s five-member freshman class. “We haven’t this much experience out of freshmen at Wisconsin since I’ve been here the last five years. It’s a special group. It’s fun to see a lot of guys coming in and getting a lot of experience really quick. It will be fun to see them in the next few years.”
Written off 18 games into the season, Wisconsin went 11-3 down the stretch to clinch its 15th straight top-four finish in the Big Ten and make its 18th straight N.C.A.A. tournament. And by becoming the only program in the country to make five Sweet 16 appearances in the last six years, in a supposed “down year,” the Badgers have put the foundation in place for more success in the immediate future.
“This is one of the prouder seasons that I’ve been a part of,’ said Smith. “We had all these unknowns and didn’t know what guys were going to do. We had a bunch of young guys coming in and didn’t know how the team was going to mesh together. We’ve really done a good job of playing good team basketball.”