While the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team may be young at some positions, the backcourt isn't one of them, as the two seniors on the team - Hughes and Jason Bohannon – know that solid guard play is what will make the Badgers' click.
"We are a hungry group and me and J-Bo have to make sure they stay hungry," Hughes said at UW Media Day Wednesday. "We need the seniors to fill those shoes and that starts with me being a leader."
Hughes and Bohannon are the two major contributors that return from a 20-win season that ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but the big two are quick to point out the young depth returning at other positions and the strides they have made in a demanding off-season.
Junior Jon Leuer (8.8 points per game) has added 15 pounds to his frame during the off season in order to be more physical. Junior Keaton Nankivil started 20 games last season and has worked hard to be a dominant post presence. Sophomore Jordan Taylor averaged 13.2 minutes as a freshman and led the Badgers with a 2.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and the list goes on.
"Looking up and down the roster, we got guys that can do it," Hughes said. "It's just a matter of going out there and doing it and last year, we didn't. We were slacking. We were weak minded. That's where we are getting better at in the off season."
What Hughes, and his teammates, were referring to was the reoccurring theme last year, a season that saw the Badgers lose nine games in which they had the lead, and in most cases control, late in the second half.
For that reason alone, Wisconsin has been a motivated group of individuals during a vigorous off-season workout that saw players push themselves to a new level of physical endurance and strength, going so far as to break or tie numerous weight lifting and agility records.
"We are always getting after each other," Bohannon said. "Our team has always worked to get each other better and Coach Ryan has always said that you aren't respecting your teammates if you aren't going after it everyday in practice."
Through the early season practices, shooting has been an after thought, with players focusing on partner passing (catching the ball with strength and ripping through the contact zone), dribbling drill using two balls per player and defensive closeouts, focusing on flying out at the shooting and harassing him.
If anyone didn't believe them, one look at true freshman Mike Bruesewitz black eye shows that the Badgers are serious about winning.
"I got the shiner the first day," Bruesewitz said. "That shows how serious these guys are."
It doesn't matter that almost half (7 of 15 players) of UW's roster are either freshmen or sophomores, the Badgers know that those young guys have experience, big game experience, that is going to help fill the void left by senior starters Joe Krabbenhoft and Marcus Landry.
"We know what we have – a lot of guys that know how to play basketball the right way," Bohannon said. "Even losing guys like Joe and Marcus, we've got guys that played a lot last year in huge games."
Even the guys that didn't play in big moments last year have shown they are ready to compete. Redshirt freshman Jared Berggren, rated a four-star center by Scout.com, has shown he's hungry to play, Bruesewitz has been compared to Krabbenhoft for his tough-as-nails mentality and Rob Wilson, who is trying to be UW's defensive specialist.
Wisconsin will need every bit of it too during a challenging non-conference slate that takes the Badgers to the EA Sports Maui Invitational before Thanksgiving, a home match-up with a preseason top-10 team in Duke in early December and, according to head coach Bo Ryan, the season opener against IPFW on November 15.
"There are still a lot of unknowns out there with what I am trying to get out of them," Ryan said. "There are certain guys that will need to be on the floor with their experience. Whether they get 25 or 32 minutes, that's what plays out now."