College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
No. 2 Wisconsin returns nearly every key player from a team that reached last year’s Final Four. That kind of stability has the Badgers thinking of other prizes, such as the school’s first Big Ten title since 2008 and, ultimately, its first national championship in program history.
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As a keepsake from their run to the 2014 national semifinals, Wisconsin players each received a padded folding chair that included the Final Four logo. Sam Dekker has decided to put his in a spot where he can see it every day before he hits the court for practice.
“I feel like I have that reminder in front of my locker every day to think about the good things we did and things we can improve on,” Dekker says of the Badgers, whose 30-win season ended with a 74–73 loss to Kentucky. “A new chair could be waiting for us if we do the right things.”
It’s a long road to Indianapolis in April, but Wisconsin has the pieces to contend for another Final Four berth. Dekker is one of seven key players returning for Bo Ryan. More than 80 percent of the scoring and 80 percent of the rebounding is back from a team that could have played Connecticut for the title had Aaron Harrison not drained a 3-pointer from 25 feet with 5.7 seconds remaining.
No. 2 Wisconsin Badgers Facts & Figures
Last season: 30-8, 12-6 Big Ten
Postseason: NCAA Final Four
Consecutive NCAAs: 16
Coach: Bo Ryan (321-121 at Wisconsin, 156-66 Big Ten)
Big Ten Projection: First
Postseason Projection: NCAA runner-up
Center Frank Kaminsky was a breakout star as a junior, leading the Badgers in scoring and rebounding. While his coming-out party was a school-record 43-point effort early in the season against North Dakota, Kaminsky’s best contributions came during the stretch run when he used a variety of post moves to become the Badgers’ No. 1 option on offense.
Dekker wasn’t satisfied with his second season at Wisconsin, particularly his low shooting numbers from 3-point range (32.6 percent) and the free throw line (68.6). But he had a terrific summer that included standout performances at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy and LeBron James Nike Skills Academy and is determined to reach his potential. Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin’s top player off the bench as a freshman, could be ready for a starting role that would allow Dekker to move to small forward, his natural position. Before Kaminsky’s late-season run, it was Hayes who carried the offense by using a quick first step to get to the basket and draw fouls.
Forward Duje Dukan, coming off a medical redshirt year, proved to be a capable scorer off the bench in his first extended action. Wisconsin’s frontcourt depth will get a boost if forward Vitto Brown, who played only 44 minutes as a freshman, makes strides and shows Ryan he’s ready to join the rotation.
The Badgers’ only significant loss is shooting guard Ben Brust. Not only is Brust the program’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers — he was 15-of-30 during Wisconsin’s NCAA Tournament run — but his defense and scrappy play also will be missed. But Wisconsin still has a load of experience at guard in seniors Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser. Jackson has started 67 consecutive games and has no fear when it comes to taking big shots in the closing seconds, while Gasser, a two-time member of the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team, is on pace to become the program’s all-time leader in minutes played. Gasser exceeded expectations last season in his return from major knee surgery and has vowed to be more of an offensive presence, which would help make up for Brust’s departure.
Bronson Koenig has a nice shooting touch and the ability to break down defenses with his dribbling and passing. He could move into a starting role if Ryan chooses to stick with a three-guard lineup. Zak Showalter, whose strength is defending, redshirted last season and will compete with Jordan Hill and Riley Dearring for the fourth guard spot.
Ryan’s best offensive club helped him get over the hump and finally reach the Final Four. The Badgers could be even more lethal on that end in 2014-15 and should also be improved on the defensive end. They’ll be heavy favorites to win their first Big Ten title since 2007-08 and appear to have the tools to make another deep run in March, meaning that Ryan’s biggest challenge might be keeping his players from getting caught up in the hype.
Gasser says that won’t be an issue. “We’ve always had expectations of winning a Big Ten title and making a deep run in the tournament,” he says. “Really, it’s nothing different for us.”
Riley Dearring took one look at a crowded backcourt last season and decided to use a redshirt season to get stronger. He arrived at Wisconsin with a reputation as a shooter and willing defender, but it won’t be easy to find much playing time in an experienced backcourt. Ethan Happ committed to Wisconsin after attending a camp in Madison following his sophomore season and the coaching staff is excited about his future, but it won’t be easy for him to find minutes right away.