The Badgers tip off the 2004-05 season tonight when IUPUI comes to the Kohl Center. There is much to look for as the season begins to unfold:
Wisconsin only had 10 players available for its two exhibition games. Freshman center Lesha Ward is redshirting while she recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and freshman guard Janese Banks was out with a knee injury. Banks should be back soon; if not for the opener Friday night, then soon thereafter. Stone expects to give all 11 players a shot at playing time and could roll 11 throughout the season.
The Badgers starting five Friday:
New kids in town
The Badgers five true freshmen will all play key roles this season, a trial by fire that is sure to bring glimmers of a bright future and moments of consternation. Expect more of the former on balance.
Jolene Anderson, the leading scorer in Wisconsin prep history, may be the Badgers best player. Banks is advertised as a similarly skilled all-around player. If that is the case, the Badgers may end up starting two true freshmen and four guards. Banks, Anderson and senior point guard Stephanie Rich are all capable on the glass, making this a viable option.
Akiya Alexander, Danielle Ward and Shari' Welton, meanwhile, will be counted on off the bench. Alexander is a spark plug, an exceptionally quick point guard who has the suddenness that has been lacking from this program in recent years. She struggled with foul trouble in the exhibition season but the Badgers' depth will allow here to grow in that regard.
Ward will have to play significant minutes due to the team's lack of post players. She may struggle at times physically, but she is quick enough to make plays on either end of the floor.
Welton will earn minutes because of her ability to match up defensively anywhere from the ‘1' to the ‘4'.
The Badgers now have the athletes and depth to play Stone's chosen style: fast and furious. Wisconsin's problems with turnovers last year could grow steep in same games as a result, but UW should force quite a few as well. If the Badgers can roll 11 players in a pressing scheme, and manage to take care of the ball, they will present plenty of matchup problems for teams all season long.
Rich running the show
Senior point guard Stephanie Rich has the ability to be a game-changing player. Her shot can be erratic, but when she is on she is as dangerous as any three-point shooter in the Big Ten. More importantly, she led the conference in assists last season. That number should go up now that she has more shooters surrounding her. Last season the Badgers could not afford to take Rich or Ashley Josephson off the court for more than a minute or two a game. This year they should have a lot more help.
Wilson's solo post act
Ebba Gebisa will help, as will Danielle Ward but the Badgers success in the post, and success this season, weighs squarely on Jordan Wilson's shoulders. The 6-foot-1 forward is far and away UW's best interior player. A solid rebounder, Wilson always seems to have a stretch or two in games where she is very difficult to stop from the low block. Wisconsin needs those stretches to last longer to have success in the Big Ten.
Gebisa, meanwhile, may be the team's glue. Once Banks' knee is healthy, Gebisa may step into a sixth-man role, which could suit her versatility. As it is now, she is the Badgers' starting power forward. She looked more comfortable there than playing the ‘3' last season. As one of only two seniors, her leadership skills will be called upon throughout the year.
Finding shots for Josephson
With an influx of talent and shooters, junior guard Ashley Josephson may not have as many opportunities this season. But she needs to be assertive when chances present themselves. Josephson is the Badgers most consistent shooter on a team that may live and die on the three-point line this season.
More competitive present, future
Wisconsin's youthful bunch is much more athletic and talented than the Badgers of a year ago. That group was simply outmatched against almost every Big Ten team. That will not be the case this year. Granted, teams like Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Purdue and Penn State are clearly more talented than the Badgers, but Wisconsin may make some noise this year. Expect the Badgers to knock off one of those teams at the Kohl Center this season, with a combination of feisty defense and very good perimeter shooting.
Perhaps the most intriguing matchup of the year, however, may be when Michigan comes to the Kohl Center Jan. 30. Both teams had mediocre campaigns last year but are full of optimism for the seasons to come. The Wolverines lineup includes seven freshmen, making it a barometer for two of the Big Ten's rebuilding programs.
Expected finish? 14-12 overall, 7-9 in conference play.