"It is all based on how the guys come back and work hard," Wilkinson said, shortly after North Carolina ended UW's season with an 88-82 loss in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament last Sunday. "They've been a part of this now. They've had a taste of being here and they want to get back and it's all going to be on the future."
Players like Wilkinson, Devin Harris and Kirk Penney have defined UW's program in recent seasons, as it has continued a rise to prominence that Dick Bennett's Badgers kicked into overdrive with a Final Four appearance five years ago.
Now, with five seniors on their way out the door, the question is what next? Is the best behind them, or are the Badgers just getting started?
Take the latter. Wisconsin is not going to be knocked off its ever rising pedestal any time soon.
"I think we're right in the position," said outgoing senior guard Clayton Hanson. "Guys are going to commit to it. Year in, year out we're going to compete."
Pride in UW hoops may be running at an all-time high, even higher than it flowed with that magical 2000 Final Four run. That campaign is now a part of Wisconsin's legacy, the past four seasons part of a continuum on the rise to glory. Bo Ryan's first four campaigns have produced victory totals of 19, 24, 25 and 25, the best one, two, three and four year span in school history.
These are good things, but the five departing seniors leave questions in their wake.
Who replaces the leadership UW's seniors embodied, especially Wilkinson, Hanson and Sharif Chambliss?
Who replaces Wilkinson, Morley and Andreas Helmigk in UW's post depth?
These questions will not be answered definitively until the 2005-06 season begins and may be asked repeatedly during that year.
What is clear, though, is that Wisconsin has plenty of reasons to be anxious to see that future realized.
First, it is important to acknowledge that the Big Ten is going to be loaded next season. Illinois, Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio State and Minnesota will look like tourney teams on paper, and Michigan and Northwestern should be competitive. This may be UW's toughest conference race since Ryan took over but the Badgers have the potential to remain one of the league's elite.
The Badgers have plenty of talented pieces left to complete their puzzle. Forward Alando Tucker is a star in the making. He will be one of the best players in the Big Ten next season and could garner him some All-America honors if he continues to improve.
While Tucker will be UW's driving force, and likely the team's strongest leader, next season, another junior-to-be, guard Kammron Taylor, will be directing the show. Taylor played both guard positions this season and may do so again next year, but as the most experienced returning guard there is no question that he will have hefty responsibilities. Both he and Tucker will likely play 31-34 minutes a game.
After that tandem, though, things become foggy, with a collection of players who could all rise up to earn quality minutes or starting jobs.
Consider, first, the question of a post presence. The Big Ten, which has been a guard dominated league in recent seasons, is going to be loaded next year with post players such as James Augustine (Illinois), Paul Davis (Michigan State), Carl Landry (Purdue), Terrence Dials (Ohio State), D.J. White (Indiana) and Vedran Vukusic (Northwestern), not to mention smaller, but no less adept inside presences such as UW's Tucker and Iowa's Greg Brunner.
The Badgers will need their trio of near 7-footers — Brian Butch, Greg Stiemsma and Jason Chappell — to step up and perform at a high level on the defensive end. In brief auditions during the NCAA Tournament, Stiemsma and Chappell played very well defensively. Butch is less physical on defense but has the most potential offensively. UW is not going to replace Wilkinson but there is enough post talent left that the position should not become a weakness.
In order to keep defenses from collapsing on Tucker and Taylor as they attack the lane, UW will have to find some trustworthy 3-point shooters. That starts with Tucker and Taylor themselves. Neither is a pure shooter like the aforementioned senior quartet, but they have each proven able to make 3s at a decent rate and they have a summer to hone that skill.
Potential sharpshooters? Butch is one. Forward Ray Nixon, the lone senior-to-be, is another.
UW's prospective 2005-06 roster is guard light, with only Taylor, sophomore-to-be Michael Flowers, redshirt freshman-to-be DeAaron Williams and incoming freshman Mickey Perry on scholarship. Williams is more of a wing player, an athletic slasher who can finish with the best of them. Flowers, on the other hand, may end up the starting point guard, sliding Taylor to the ‘2' when he is in the game. Flowers is a competent ball handler and strong defender who has exceptional confidence. He needs to improve his shot and could be more sound with the ball but he will enter the fall as the team's second most experienced guard.
"We are a talented team," Taylor said. "We are young. Me and Alando we have two years left. Flowers, Greg, Butch they got three years left. The way the guys are going to develop is going to be a real big issue."
The x-factors are incoming recruits Joe Krabbenhoft and Marcus Landry. Krabbenhoft has the potential to play the ‘2', ‘3' or the ‘4' and comes in as the top ranked prospect heading to any Big Ten program. Landry, the brother of Purdue star Carl Landry, is an exceptional athlete who could play the ‘3' or the ‘4'. He is the second highest ranked prospect heading to the Big Ten in the fall. Both will be in the mix for significant playing time next year.
"As a graduate, someone who was part of this thing and then moves on, I'm going to be proud wearing a Wisconsin shirt down the road," Hanson said.
And he will be cheering for many, many victories in the years to come.