Motivated Group Returns for Wisconsin

Although the one-point loss to Kentucky in the national semifinals will sting for some time, Wisconsin basketball has plenty to be excited about when it starts preparing for the 2014-15 season; a year in which Wisconsin could be one of the top teams in the country.

ARLINGTON, Texas – Through all the tears and eerie silence that encapsulated the University of Wisconsin locker room late Saturday night, a common theme could be seen when looking around the gloomy scene.

The majority of those players from a team that had been developing its chemistry since August are going to be back.

"It was a really fun group to be around," said junior Duje Dukan. "I think that's was definitely contributed to us having such a successful season. We had such great team chemistry. The young guys weren't afraid to voice their opinions and the old guys really let them feel a part of this team as soon they came in. We were just really excited at the start of the season because we had a special feeling about this team."

It's customary after the completion of one season to look forward to the next, and that thought process has already generated plenty of excitement for a Wisconsin fan base still coping with the 74-73 last-second loss to Kentucky in the national semifinals.

Wisconsin loses three seniors off its roster, the biggest hit being senior guard Ben Brust. Starting all 38 games this past season (and playing in 124 in his career), Brust finished as the school's all-time leader in 3-point makes and transformed himself from a spot-up shooter to an all-around scorer and rebounder.

"Ben's meant a lot to us," said junior Frank Kaminsky. "He's a great basketball player, he's a great shooter and most of all he's a great friend."

Wisconsin is expected to return four starters — Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser. Kaminsky led the team in scoring (13.9 ppg). Dekker was third at 12.4 ppg, Jackson fourth at 10.7 ppg and Gasser fifth at 8.8 ppg.

Take out the production of Brust, seniors Evan Anderson and Zach Bohannon and the two games George Marshall played before transferring, Wisconsin returns 81.8 percent of its scoring, 85.9 percent of its rebounding and 88.9 percent of its assists.

"Got a lot of guys who I know who are going to put in a lot of work in the offseason," said Brust. "A lot of talent. Guys like Frank, Sam, Josh, Trae have now been through almost everything. Duje has been through a lot, too … They're going to be a great team next year."

Despite being held to eight points on only seven shots in the finale, Kaminsky developed into a dominant big man over the final two months of the season, especially in tournament play. Over Wisconsin's five tournament games, Kaminsky averaged 16.4 points and 5.8 rebounds – both team highs – to go along with nine blocks.

Gasser regained his mental edge after missing all of 2012-13 with an ACL injury to earn a spot on the Big Ten's All-Defensive Team, while Dekker gained valuable experience in his first season as a starter that will parlay into future success.

Jackson has drawn unwarranted criticism for the final 20 seconds against Kentucky, but his work down the stretch for Wisconsin made the Badgers one of the final four teams left standing. During the second halves of UW's last 13 games, Jackson's shooting percentage improved over 10 percentage points (35.7 percent to over 45.5 percent), went 43-for-51 (.843) from the free throw line and had a 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio (32 ast, 12 TOs) in the final 20 minutes.

Plenty of players also got a taste of the process, knowing the enormous amount of work needed to be put in during a long season to reach the final weekend. Seldom used throughout his first three years, Dukan came off his redshirt season and played every game, gaining some confidence with his eight points and five rebounds off the bench Saturday. His minutes will increase next season if his defense can improve.

True freshman Bronson Koenig became mentally tougher as the season progressed, including scoring 11 points in the first half against the Wildcats with Jackson in foul trouble, while classmate Nigel Hayes was named the conference's sixth man of the year after averaging 7.7 points off the bench.

Foul troubles limited Hayes to only two points in seven minutes against Kentucky, causing him to put all the blame on his shoulders for the loss, fair or foul. A motivated Hayes combined with his talent will make him a viable candidate for the starting spot being vacated by Brust.

Wisconsin's bench can also be strengthened by the development of Vitto Brown, who played in 14 games as a true freshman, guard Zak Showalter coming off his redshirt season and a host of young players who saw how hard they need to work to win 30 games.

"I am very proud (of our team), but at the same time, I know that we could have done more," said Hayes. "We know that f we had done one more of this (or that), we would still be playing on Monday. Nonetheless, it is still an accomplishment for any team to make it to the Final Four."

That's what Wisconsin's players will likely come to realize over the next several weeks, that they advanced farther than any UW team over the last 14 teams. Once that reality sets in, they'll get back to work, with their realistic sights on Big Ten championships and the 2015 Final Four in Indianapolis.

"This is a sour taste," said Kaminsky. "We are going to be back next year. We are going to be better than ever. We will all be ready. It is going to be a long road to get back here, but I know we will make it."

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