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.
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
– 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.
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. 5 Kansas.
Head Coach: Bill Self
Last Season: 25-10, 14-4 Big 12 (1st)
Key Losses: Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Tarik Black, Naadir Tharpe
Newcomers: Cliff Alexander, Devonte’ Graham, Kelly Oubre, Hunter Mickelson, Svi Mykhailiuk
– G: Devonte’ Graham, Fr.
– G: Wayne Selden, So.
– F: Kelly Oubre, Fr.
– F: Perry Ellis, Jr.
– C: Cliff Alexander, Fr.
– Bench: Frank Mason, So.; Hunter Mickelson, Jr.; Landen Lucas, So.; Brannen Greene, So.; Jamari Traylor, Jr.; Svi Mykhailiuk, Fr.
They’ll be good because … : The Jayhawks are loaded, as usual. Cliff Alexander is the face of this year’s recruiting class, a powerfully athletic, 6-foot-8 forward that has the potential to one day shatter a back board during a game. He’ll remind some people of Montrezl Harrell in the way that he attacks the glass and the rim. Wayne Selden was overshadowed a top 15 recruit and a projected lottery pick last season even before struggling through knee issues as a freshman. He’s healthy now. Kelly Oubre is this year’s Selden, an elite-level NBA prospect on the wing that may be the most talented player on the roster. All of that is before you consider Perry Ellis, who could very well end up being the leading scorer for the Jayhawks this season.
There’s depth, too. Even after the transfer of Connor Frankamp, Kansas can legitimately go two-deep at every position. It’s not at the same level as Kentucky — the drop-off from Kelly Oubre to Svi Mykhailiuk is noticeable — but Bill Self has plenty to work with on this team.
And that’s the third part of this equation. Bill Self. It’s been more than a decade since he finished a season as anything other than the Big 12 regular season champ, and that’s not an accident. A team with this much talent, coaching and program pedigree is always going to be in the conversation as one of the best teams in the country. That’s just the way it works.
But they might disappoint because … : There are three concerns that I have with the Jayhawks, however, and the biggest issue is one that has plagued them since Sherron Collins graduated: Point guard play. From Josh Selby to Tyshawn Taylor to Elijah Johnson to Naadir Tharpe, Self has had talent come through his program, but reliability and consistency hasn’t come with it. Enter Devonte’ Graham, a top 50 recruit and former Appalachian State signee who is expected to take over the roll this season. As a freshman. It may be a while before those questions are answered this year.
Youth is another issue with this team. Three of the five guys expected to start are freshmen, while Selden is just a sophomore. Hunter Mickelson, who is a redshirt junior, is the only guy on the roster that has been on a college campus for three seasons, and while Self has sent a handful of one-and-done players to the NBA’s lottery — Ben McLemore, Xavier Henry, Wiggins, Embiid — he hasn’t turned those seasons into Final Four appearances. His best years at Kansas have been when he’s been loaded with veterans.
Lastly, the front line is not a lock to be great. I think Ellis is the best front court scorer in the Big 12, but he’s not a rim protector defensively. Alexander has a ton of talent, but he’s still learning the game; Self has stated publicly that Alexander is raw, and he’s still getting into shape after an ankle injury this summer. Landen Lucas is nothing more than a body at this point. Jamari Traylor is an energy guy but ideally a role player on a Final Four-caliber team. The x-factor is Mickelson, a big, strong center that played two seasons at Arkansas before sitting out last year in Lawrence.
Outlook: Once again, the Jayhawks are the safe-bet to win the Big 12 title. That’s just the way it works in the league these days. It doesn’t matter that Texas has top ten-caliber talent, or that Oklahoma and Iowa State are good enough to make the Final Four, or that Kansas State is has the pieces to give all four of those teams a run for their money.
That said, I do have some concerns about Kansas continuing their consecutive league titles, mainly due to the reasons I mentioned above. We don’t know if Graham is going to be ready to takeover the reins of this team, which makes to question marks with the Jayhawks youth and front line that much more concerning. The Jayhawks have a ton of potential, and the talent to win a national title, but their floor is much lower than the other teams that find themselves ranked in the top five.