MADISON - In the minutes that followed the finality of the season, a heartbreaking 84-83 overtime defeat at the buzzer to Florida Friday night, reality set in at how special Wisconsin’s four-member senior class was.
All multi-year starters, Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter combined for 115 wins over the last four seasons, which included 13 N.C.A.A. tournament wins, four Sweet 16 appearances and two Final Four appearances. The group’s success was unprecedented.
And then reality set in that the Wisconsin coaching staff has to figure out a way to replace that production.
Wisconsin had virtually no changeover last offseason. Returning every member of the rotation, Wisconsin returned 99.8 percent of its minutes, 99.7 of its scoring and rebounding and 100 percent of its assists and steals.
Entering next season the Badgers have to replace 55.9 percent of its minutes, four of its top five scorers who were responsible for 59.7 percent of its points, 42.6 percent of its rebounds and all of its leadership.
Fortunately head coach Greg Gard has a budding superstar to build his unit around in junior-to-be Ethan Happ. A first-team All-Big Ten selection, a second-team All-American and a member of the Big Ten’s All-Defensive team, Happ averaged 14.0 points in 27.8 minutes per game.
The nation’s only player to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals during conference play, Happ’s offseason includes improving his mid-range game (a spot on the floor he rarely attempted shots), his free throw shooting (81-for-162) and eliminating foul trouble.
Other than Happ, there are few proven commodities on Wisconsin’s roster. In 29 games where Wisconsin played a Big Ten, Power-Five conference school or ranked opponent, the Badgers’ bench scored 10 points or less 15 times.
A major source of that production was freshman guard D'Mitrik Trice, who quickly rose to Gard’s first option off the bench and will step into Koenig’s shoes next season as the team’s likely starting point guard. Trice played in 37 games with a pair of starts and averaged 5.6 points and just a turnover every 18.3 minutes. Trice started to wear down as the season completed (zero points in three of his last four games) but shot a team-best 41.8 percent from 3-point range.
“This year has taught me a lot of different things,” Trice said. “Whether that was in times we were in a slump or in an all-time high, it’s taught me a lot leadership wise with what these four seniors have done for us to get us where we are now. That’ll help me for these next few years I’m going to be here. I’m just taking everything in, the experience, what the guys are teaching us, what the coaches are teaching us so I can bring us back here next year.”
With UW needing depth in the front court, juniors-to-be Khalil Iverson, Charles Thomas, Alex Illikainen and Andy Van Vliet will all be looked at to have an expanded role. Iverson averaged 3.9 points and 3.3 rebounds in 35 games, and his 53.2 percent shooting percentage was the highest among the reserves. His athleticism is his biggest weapon, but he has to polish his outside game and his intangibles.
Thomas played in only one of UW’s final eight games, Illikainen played no more than six minutes in his final 10 appearances and Van Vliet played a total of nine minutes once conference play started. The Badgers will certainly need more. There's also the question of what forward Aleem Ford will be able to do with his raw athleticism coming off his redshirt season, as the staff and teammates have praised his skill set.
Other than Trice and Hill, UWs only other experience guard is Brevin Pritzl, who was inconsistent in his first season removed from a broken foot and never found rhythm with his shot (35.2 percent shooting, 23.8 percent from 3-point range).
Whether they reserves are ready or not, Wisconsin is bringing in a top-25 recruiting class of three highly-touted prospects who could each make an early impact.
Shooting guard Kobe King averaged 27 points per game in leading La Crosse Central to the WIAA Division 2 state championship and winning the state’s Mr. Basketball award. Four-star prospects Brad Davison (6-3 guard) and forward Nathan Reuvers (6-10 forward) both rank in the top 100 nationally and are finalists for Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball award. All three have a chance to make a significant impact right away.
“We have a winning culture,” Moesch said. “That’s the thing I’ve noticed since I’ve been here. It started with Coach Ryan and moved on to Coach Gard; they recruit winners and will do what it takes to win … People don’t want to lose. They want to win. Carrying that mentality will be a big thing going into next year, just making sure that winning is the culture.”
The challenges on paper appear significant but the departing seniors quickly shot down the word “rebuilding” for a program that has finished in the top four of the Big Ten for 17 straight seasons and made 19 straight N.C.A.A. tournaments. Those that remain will have the tall task to prove them right.
“People always say it’s going to be a rebuild year but the system and how we do things, I think they’ll be all right,” Showalter said. “They’ve got a lot of talent coming back. Guys that were young contributed this year and in big minutes, played in big situations. Now it’s their time.”