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Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser, Duje Dukan serve as honorary coaches for football team’s spring game (VIDEO)

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Earlier this month Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser and Duje Dukan completed their college basketball careers, as they were members of teams that reached the Final Four in each of the last two seasons and won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles in 2014-15. Both were picked for a special honor this weekend, as they were named the honorary coaches for the football team’s spring game.

From a wardrobe standpoint both took the occasion “seriously,” with Gasser’s outfit being inspired by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Dukan paying homage to former Wisconsin head coach (and current athletic director) Barry Alvarez with the red sweater vest.

Unfortunately for Dukan there was no leftover “coaching” magic in the vest, as his team fell 35-7. And for Gasser, the victory was capped by a celebratory Gatorade bath in the game’s final minute.

Credit: Big Ten Network

Top 25 Countdown: No. 3 Wisconsin Badgers

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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.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

source: AP
Bo Ryan (AP Photo)

Head Coach: Bo Ryan

Last Season: 30-8, 12-6 Big Ten (t-2nd), lost in the Final Four to Kentucky

Key Losses: Ben Brust

Newcomers: Ethan Happ

Projected Lineup

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.

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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.

Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser now brace-free nearly two years removed from knee injury

Frank Kaminsky, Josh Gasser
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After missing the entire 2012-13 season due to a torn ACL in his left knee (he also damaged the meniscus and lateral collateral ligament), Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser returned to the court to play a key role for a team that reached the Final Four. Gasser posted averages of 8.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game last season, and his ability on the defensive end of the floor led to his being named to the Big Ten All-Defensive Team.

It’s been said in the sports world that the second year removed from a torn ACL, even with the medical advances that have accelerated the rehabilitation process, is the one in which an athlete experiences the greatest amount of growth. That’s the hope in Madison with regards to Gasser, who’s healthy after undergoing hernia surgery in the spring and is getting used to playing without a cumbersome brace on his left knee.

Gasser discussed the process with Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal.

“It feels good,” Gasser said. “Throughout the whole season, I was shooting without it and I was doing some running without it. It’s just good to be out there and not have to worry about it. Mentally, I’ve got to kind of get confident again, similar to when I was coming back from my injury. Playing without it is just a whole different ballgame.

“But I definitely feel comfortable. I feel a little quicker, so I’m excited to work without it this summer.”

Wisconsin returns every major contributor from last season’s team with the exception of guard Ben Brust, who posted averages of 12.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 39.3% from beyond the arc (third in the Big Ten). With Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky being the expected leaders for the Badgers offensively and multiple supplementary options, Bo Ryan’s team is seen by many as the early favorite to win the Big Ten.

Having Gasser back at full strength will certainly help matters for Wisconsin, which will also look to not only return to the Final Four but also pick up the two wins they were unable to earn in Arlington, Texas back in April.

Josh Gasser the difference-maker in No. 8 Wisconsin’s win at Virginia

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In a game in which both No. 8 Wisconsin and Virginia struggled to make shots, redshirt junior guard Josh Gasser who was the most accurate shooter and made the plays that helped the Badgers pick up the 48-38 win in Charlottesville. Gasser (team-high 11 points) attempted just two shots from the field but he made both, the second of which being a three-pointer to give the Badgers a 42-30 lead with 6:24 remaining. And based upon how the two teams shot on the night, that margin proved to be insurmountable.

But Gasser’s biggest contribution came on the defensive end of the floor, where he was the player primarily responsible for the assignment of guarding All-ACC guard Joe Harris. In Virginia’s 60-54 win at the Kohl Center last season Harris accounted for 22 points (8-for-19 FG), five rebounds and five assists.

However on Wednesday Harris’ impact was minimal, as he finished the night with just two points on 1-for-10 shooting. The difference: Gasser, who missed all of last season due to a torn ACL and adds an element this team sorely lacked while he was sidelined.

“Just gutsy, tough,” Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said of Gasser following the team’s season-opening win over St. John’s, and those words apply to Wednesday’s performance as well. “That’s Josh. (Thirty-five) games last year, where he wasn’t on the floor, we could have used that. That energy, that moxie. He might not do that every night, but he showed why he worked so hard in the offseason.”

As a team Virginia shot 23.4%, and after scoring 12 of their first 14 points in the paint the Cavaliers struggled to convert what few opportunities they could find to the remainder of the night. Both teams defended well, with Virginia limiting the Badgers to 28.8% shooting (5-for-23 3PT), but it was Wisconsin who did the better job of finding the looks needed to both establish and maintain a working margin.

Now 9-0 on the season with wins over Florida, Saint Louis and Virginia on their resume, Wisconsin has the look of a Big Ten contender and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Under Ryan, who picked up his 300th win at the school on Wednesday, Wisconsin has finished in the top four of the Big Ten standings every season. They’ll have better nights offensively, but even if they don’t the defense will remain a constant.

In games like this it’s difficult to find too much to apply towards the future, but it’s safe to say that with Josh Gasser back in the rotation Wisconsin’s got an entirely different look.

Wisconsin’s Vitto Brown sings national anthem at Red/White Scrimmage (VIDEO)

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With the loss of Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans from last season’s 23-win squad, Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan will rely on returnees such as guards Ben Brust and Josh Gasser and wing Sam Dekker to lead the way in 2013-14. Also of importance for Wisconsin is the arrival of a talented five-man freshman class, including guard Bronson Koenig and forward Nigel Hayes.

With two of the team’s top three scorers from last season (Berggren and Evans) gone those newcomers will have an opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation (they also took a summer trip to Canada to help with the learning curve). 6-foot-8 forward Vitto Brown is one of those players, and he can belt out a tune as well. Prior to the start of the team’s Red-White Scrimmage on Saturday Brown, a native of Bowling Green, Ohio, sang the national anthem.

As for the scrimmage the Red team won 67-65 with Brust and George Marshall leading the way offensively with 16 and 14 points, respectively. Dekker led the White team with a game-high 18 points, but more important than any stats from the game was the fact that Gasser made his return to the floor after tearing his ACL prior to the start of the 2012-13 campaign. In 26 minutes of action the redshirt junior tallied 11 points and two assists.

Without Gasser last season more was asked of both Marshall and Traevon Jackson, with the latter making 28 starts and posting averages of 6.9 points and 2.8 assists (led the team) per game. Now with Gasser healthy and the arrival of Koenig, the Badgers have a lot more depth at the point guard position than they did a season ago.

Wisconsin may have lost some key contributors, but since Ryan took over in 2001 the Badgers have yet to finish worse than fourth in the Big Ten in any season (that includes ties for fourth). If the newcomers prove themselves capable of helping out the returnees, Wisconsin will have a good chance of keeping that streak alive.

Hardcore hill training gets Badgers ready for a long season

Big Ten Basketball Tournament - Championship - Wisconsin v Ohio State
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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.