Wisconsin returns most of its rotation from last season’s Final Four team with the exception of former starting guard Ben Brust.
The former shooting guard graduated from Wisconsin after last season and is playing professional ball overseas in Lithuania right now, but he made a bold proclamation during the week that his Badgers would be the team to stop Kentucky’s run at perfection.
A guarantee of victory doesn’t mean as much from Brust since he’s not playing, but it is interesting to see how much confidence Brust had in this group since he was just playing with them the last four seasons. The internal confidence of this Wisconsin group is really high right now and former players like Brust obviously feel exactly the same way about the team.
Brust hasn’t made any predictions for Monday night’s national championship game against Duke, but for now, he looks pretty smart for making this claim last week.
Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 3 Wisconsin.
Last Season: 30-8, 12-6 Big Ten (t-2nd), lost in the Final Four to Kentucky
Key Losses: Ben Brust
Newcomers: Ethan Happ
– G: Trae Jackson, Sr.
– G: Bronson Koenig, So.
– G: Josh Gasser, Sr.
– F: Sam Dekker, Jr.
– C: Frank Kaminsky, Sr.
– Bench: Duje Dukan, Sr.; Nigel Hayes, So.; Riley Dearring, Fr.; Jordan Hill, So.
They’ll be good because … : There’s an argument to be made that this is the most talented team that Bo Ryan has ever had at Wisconsin, and Ryan has never had a team that’s finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten. It starts with Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, two potential all-americans and first round draft picks. Kaminsky was one of the breakout stars of last season, a seven-footer with perimeter skills and the size to overpower smaller defenders in the paint. Dekker is probably the more talented of the two, a 6-foot-9 wing with three point range and the ability to put the ball on the floor and dunk on a defender.
While those two will carry the team, the Badgers will be led by senior guards Trae Jackson and Josh Gasser, tough, defensive-minded players that are as prototypical “Wisconsin” as it gets. The x-factors for the Badgers are sophomores Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, both of whom had some promising moments during their first season in Madison.
All of that makes the Badgers look quite good on paper, but the biggest reason that they are looked at as the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten is that everyone except Ben Brust is back from last year’s team that earned a No. 2 seed in the tournament and made the Final Four. Bo’s teams don’t get worse with experience.
But they might disappoint because … : The biggest concern that I can see with this Wisconsin team is their depth, particularly in the back court. A staple of Wisconsin basketball is that Bo is always going to find a guy on his bench that is capable of stepping into minutes and playing like an experienced veteran. That’s just the way that his system works, but right now it seems to me that there are really only three guards on the roster capable of playing major minutes for a national title contender. Part of Dekker’s value lies in his ability to slide over and play the three, but that still means that the Badgers are thin on the wing.
The other red flag is the limited athleticism and defensive ability that Wisconsin has on their front line. If there is a weakness to Kaminsky’s game, it’s that he can be overmatched by guys that are his size and more athletic, and a number of teams that are in and around the top ten have front courts like that — Kentucky, Arizona, Duke, Texas. Throw in the fact that Dekker is more of a wing than a power forward and that Hayes, for all he does well, it a bit undersized to be a post player, and the Badgers could be susceptible to bigger teams this season.
Outlook: To be frank, those concerns are me picking nits. I think out of every team in the top ten, Wisconsin has the lowest floor of them all. It’s easy to see a situation where, say, Kentucky can’t find a way to keep everyone in their rotation happy with their minutes or with Duke struggling defensively or Arizona having issues with their ability to score. I can see Virginia struggling to replace Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris defensively or North Carolina’s point guards and centers failing to reach expectations.
In other words, out of every team in the country that can be labeled a contender this season, the Badgers have the least amount of risk. At this point, we know what we’re going to be getting from everyone on the roster. Kaminsky is going to be the typical matchup nightmare that Badgers bigs end up being. Jackson and Gasser will be the bulldogs that lead this team. Koenig and Hayes will be, at worst, solid role players once again. And Dekker, who is expected to have a big junior season, will, at worst, be the regular old all-Big Ten caliber player he’s been the past two seasons.
There’s not as much upside with this group as there is with other teams, but that’s not a bad thing. Wisconsin’s worst-case scenario this year is probably still good enough to win the league and make a run at a second straight Final Four.
For another year, Wisconsin will finish Big Ten play as one of the top four teams in the conference standings.
That became a certainty on Sunday afternoon when No. 14 Wisconsin held off a late comeback from Penn State, defeating the Nittany Lions on the road with a 71-66 final, giving the Badgers their seventh consecutive victory and putting them in a tie for second place with No. 18 Michigan State.
The Badgers have had difficulty guarding the perimeter this season, and that was apparent against the the Penn State back court. Tim Frazier was plagued with three first half fouls, but D.J. Newbill was able to carry the load, scoring a game-high 23 points, attack the basket for layups, or at the very least second-chance opportunities. Frazier cracked double figures with under 20 seconds to play with back-to-back buckets in the paint, the first of which cut the lead to two, 68-66, with 18 seconds to play. Though Wisconsin was able to counter with free throw shooting — 5-of-6 from the line — down the stretch.
The Wisconsin frontline got a combined 16 points from Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, but just like its opponent’s guards, the Wisconsin back court stepped up on Sunday afternoon. Penn State had continually threatened in the second half, but more times than not, Ben Brust would respond with a bucket to respond. He scored 11 of his 14 after halftime while Traevon Jackson connected on four free throws to ice the win.
While Wisconsin didn’t get the same offensive production from its front court and also allowed the Nittany Lions to consistently get to the basket, the Badgers were able to leave with a win by taking care of the basketball — eight turnovers (four in each half) — and moving the ball on offense — assisting on 15 of 22 field goals made. They were also aided by Penn State’s 1-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc.
Wisconsin hosts its final regular season home game of the season on Wednesday before heading to Nebraska on Sunday, a game in which the Cornhuskers can pad their tournament resume.
In ending their three-game losing streak with a win at Purdue on Saturday afternoon No. 14 Wisconsin seemed to have turned things around, and in theory a home game against Northwestern represented the opportunity to go on a run. Unfortunately for Bo Ryan’s Badgers things didn’t work out that way, as they struggled on both ends of the floor in a 65-56 loss to the Wildcats in Madison.
The most glaring problem would be Wisconsin’s shooting, as they made just 26.3% of their attempts from the field. Ben Brust scored 21 points on 7-for-18 shooting but the other four starters combined to make just seven of their thirty-five shot attempts, resulting in the Badgers putting forth their worst offensive performance of the entire season.
Northwestern does deserve some credit for this, as they didn’t give Wisconsin anything easy nearly four weeks after getting blown out in Evanston. However with that 76-49 result from January 2nd in mind one can only wonder what happened to Wisconsin’s ability to make shots, something that wasn’t even an issue during the aforementioned three-game losing streak.
What was a problem in those three games was the way in which Wisconsin defended, and while Northwestern’s point total didn’t reach the 70-point plateau the task of guarding Drew Crawford proved to be too much for the Badgers to handle Wednesday night. Crawford scored 30 points, making ten of his fifteen shots from the field while also grabbing eight rebounds.
As a team the Wildcats shot 47.9% from the field and 7-for-16 from three, with their proficiency making up for the fact that they turned the ball over 14 times (Crawford and Sanjay Lumpkin were responsible for ten). Wisconsin didn’t defend as poorly as they did in their three prior Big Ten losses, with each of those teams shooting at least 51% from the field, but down the stretch they simply did not have an answer for the Wildcats.
The big question to ask in the aftermath of this defeat is whether or not tonight’s offensive showing will fester into something far worse. And the answer, based upon what Wisconsin has done throughout the season, is no. Players such as Brust, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky have all proven to be highly capable scorers, and Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser can hit shots as well.
Wisconsin simply endured its worst offensive night of the season. And with Drew Crawford knocking down shots for Northwestern, the Badgers paid dearly for it.
Josh Gasser led the way with 19 points, but it was the 16 points from Sam Dekker and 15 points from Ben Brust that really made the difference in this one.
The biggest concern with Wisconsin heading into the season was the fact that they will be playing the majority of this season with a three-guard lineup, and on Friday night, that didn’t appear to be an issue. The Badgers were able to spread the floor against the Johnnies, attacking gaps in their matchup-zone and creating open shot after open shot.
The Badgers are going to be a nightmare for teams with more traditional lineups to try and defend. Sam Dekker has the height of a power forward but the perimeter skills of an off-guard. He’s an all-american caliber talent, and asking a big man to try and stay with him on the perimeter is a tall task.
As has become the standard for Bo Ryan teams, they also managed to find scoring from a place where you absolutely wouldn’t expect it. On Friday, it was Duje Dukan, a redshirt junior that barely made a scouting report, who went off for 15 points. Dukan is a prototypical Badger big man, as he can step out and knock down a three, further spreading the floor.
The Johnnies got off to a tough start in this one, digging themselves a 33-15 hole. They were able to get the lead down to four in the second half, but the Badgers immediately responded with a pair of threes to push the lead back to ten, a spurt that looked like it demoralized St. John’s.
D’angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson both looked like all-Big East player, finishing with 48 points combined. But the rest of St. John’s lineup looked a bit lost. There’s a ton of talent on potential there, but it will be interesting to see if Lavin is able to tap into it. Granted, this was a tough matchup — in a game being played in South Dakota of all places — for this team, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
One thing to keep an eye on: St. John’s doesn’t really have a low-post scorer on their roster. Wisconsin doesn’t really have a big man that can defend on the block. It will be interesting to see what happens when the Badgers face a team with a real front court scorer.
Bo Ryan has been head coach at Wisconsin since 2001. His Badgers haven’t missed the NCAA tournament once during that time. They’ve never finished lower than fourth in the exceptionally loaded Big Ten. Think on that, and consider the persistence and consistency Ryan imparts to a team that changes in makeup every season.
The grit that characterizes Wisconsin basketball under Ryan is born in the preseason, as the Associated Press recently discovered. Ryan has his team run a hill in Madison’s Elver Park that the AP writer estimated to be 150 yards from bottom to top, at an 8 percent grade. As if the hill itself weren’t bad enough, the team has to face the famously unpredictable Wisconsin weather as well.
“The elevation and the pulse. The stamina, the team building. There are days when guys struggle,” Ryan told the AP. “We’ve had days where it’s 90 (degrees). We’ve had days where it’s 40, windy, blustery.”
The hill run is Ryan’s version of the Boot Camp training that other high-profile coaches like Bill Self use to get their players in shape. Somehow, it seems fitting that the grind-it-out Badgers use something so low-tech to get ready year-in and year-out. It’s as much mental as physical, of course:
Ryan, looking fit and rested in shorts, a vest over a sweatshirt and cap, clocked his players with a stopwatch. Midway up, a trainer shouted trivia questions.
The fastest group gets to the top in about 25-26 seconds, while the fourth group gets up in about 29 seconds, Ryan said. Generally, the guards get up the quickest, the big men the slowest.
They went about 10 times this offseason. Each time out, the reps build, from eight the first time to 22 or 23 the last time out.
Wisconsin has talent this season, with Sam Dekker tagged as one of the best players in the Big Ten and guard Josh Gasser back from an injury redshirt season to join a backcourt with Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson. With all that talent learning how to grind it out and work together in the preseason, the Big Dance will likely hold a place for Wisconsin yet again this season.