Wisconsin basketball will have its hands full in a number of areas this season, including having to replace floor leader Brian Butch, center presence Greg Stiemsma, defensive wizard Michael Flowers and crowd favorite Tanner Bronson, a quartet that was one of the main reasons the Badgers won both the regular season and tournament championship in 2008.
A consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection, Butch led the Badgers in both scoring (12.4 ppg.) and rebounding (6.7 rpg.), Stiemsma led the team in blocks and Flowers earned a spot on the conference's All-Defensive team for the second consecutive season.
The Badgers will have plenty of returning firepower with three starters returning to the lineup -forwards Joe Krabbenhoft (7.6 ppg and 6.5 rpg) Marcus Landry (10.8 ppg) and point guard Trevon Hughes (11.2 ppg) – talent that came from the bench last season – Jason Bohannon, Jon Leuer and Tim Jarmusz – and a five-person recruiting class, including four-star center Jared Berggren and Minnesota's Mr. Basketball Jordan Taylor.
This year's home slate features 18 home games (down from 20 last season) and a minimum of eight games vs. teams that appeared in the NCAA tournament last season, a tough challenge for a youthful team.
"Our schedule has us playing a lot of teams that are high in the RPI and we're looking forward to the challenge, especially with a young team," head coach Bo Ryan said in a press statement. "We have 11 underclassmen on this team, with five freshmen and six sophomores and this schedule will be a test for our group."
While the non-conference home schedule appears weaker than in past seasons, Wisconsin will have its hands full away from the Kohl Center, playing in a loaded tournament field in the Paradise Jam Tournament in late November and playing at Virginia Tech and Marquette back to back in early December. Unlike the last time the Badgers traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands and played three cupcakes, the tournament field is loaded with heavyweights Connecticut, Miami (Fla.) and San Diego, all of whom made the NCAA tournament last season.
After traveling to Marquette, the Badgers will have a chance to recover with four-games in a 17-day period with three relative lightweights and finishing the non-conference season with a return game against Texas.
The Badgers home opener will be against Long Beach State, a team that is coached by former Minnesota head coach Dan Monson.
"We knew we were going to have the Paradise Jam tournament, our three in-state opponents, the ACC Challenge and Texas coming to the Kohl Center and the rest fell in from there," Wisconsin assistant coach and schedule maker Greg Gard said. "It'll be a challenge but we've never tried to look at the schedule as a whole. We'll hit the hill tomorrow and that will be our first opponent."
By the looks of the schedule, Wisconsin is taking the same approach as they did last year. Needing to replace the senior talent and leadership of All-American Alando Tucker, the Badgers took their squad, who was searching for an identity, to Duke, Milwaukee and Texas for three challenging road tilts to prepare them for the conference season. The result was a 16-2 conference record, an 8-1 road record and 31 overall wins. Mission Accomplished.
With the similarities to last season, it's only fitting that Wisconsin begins its title defense where its title run started last season – a road contest in Ann Arbor on New Year's Eve.
After two home contests, the Badgers enter into their first tough stretch of the season in where they play four out of six on the road, including at Iowa and Illinois in a three-day stretch. The other tough stretch isn't until the end of February when the Badgers go to Indiana and Michigan State in three days. Wisconsin closes the season against Indiana, where former Marquette head coach Tom Crean makes his first visit to the Kohl Center as a member of the Hoosiers.
"It doesn't matter where we start or where we finish, we knew we were going to get 18 games and with this group, it is going to be a process," Gard said. "It's going to be game by game, trying to move on and get better and that's what it's been like for all the groups. We get a lot of t.v. exposure and that's as much exposure we've had from a program standpoint. For the most part, everything came together pretty well."
Because of the unbalanced scheduling in the Big Ten, the badgers will play Michigan State and Ohio State only once for the second year in a row (UW hosts OSU on February 14 and travels to East Lancing on February 22). With the Spartans, Buckeyes and Purdue being the clear favorites, along with UW, in the Big Ten this season, Wisconsin has the edge again in terms of the scheduling.
"We never look at the schedule and say this is where we'll be defined or this will be a turning point for us or we'll know by this point where we are at," Gard said. "Every team gives you something different and every game you find out something new and get a little better. We saw that last year through different points last season where we took steps."
Will Wisconsin duplicate the success it had last season? Who knows. But with Bo Ryan on the bench and the similar schedule he and his assistants produced for this year, I wouldn't count out the Badgers in 2009.