Bo Ryan’s 15th season at Wisconsin already figured to be an interesting one because of all the key parts he had to replace from a team that fell one victory short of winning a national title last season.
But the Badgers’ storyline became even juicier over the summer when Ryan announced that he’d retire following the 2015-16 season, a surprising decision that caught even athletic director Barry Alvarez off guard. Since then, Ryan has backtracked somewhat, saying he wouldn't rule out coaching in 2016-17.
Wisconsin has never finished below fourth place in the Big Ten under Ryan, but it won’t be easy to extend that remarkable streak. Ryan, for his part, has never been concerned with outside expectations. “This will be one of the youngest teams we’ve ever had,” he says. “But we’ll still use our same approach.”
All Big Ten predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Not only do the Badgers lose National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky, but they also have to replace fellow NBA first-round pick Sam Dekker. Throw in departed reserve Duje Dukan — who signed a contract with the Sacramento Kings after a strong performance in the NBA Summer League — and the three tallest players in UW’s rotation last season are gone.
Ryan will be forced to go with a smaller lineup that will have Nigel Hayes as its centerpiece. Hayes has served in a complementary role during his first two seasons with the Badgers, but now the offense will run through him. After not attempting a single 3-pointer as a freshman, Hayes worked on his perimeter game the following offseason and shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc last season. His top priority heading into his junior season is to become better off the dribble so he can be a more dangerous and versatile offensive threat.
The rest of the frontcourt is filled with question marks. Vitto Brown has averaged 1.4 points, 1.1 rebounds and 5.4 minutes per game through his first two seasons while struggling with confidence issues. Breakout junior seasons are a regular occurrence under Ryan — Kaminsky is the poster child for that development arc — and the staff is hoping that Brown will seize his opportunity.
Ethan Happ chose to redshirt last season as a true freshman because he knew his minutes would be limited. Teammates and coaches raved about Happ’s work on the scout team, and he should provide energy and rebounding at the very least. Wisconsin will need a true freshman or two to add depth. Charlie Thomas is the most physically ready, while Andy van Vliet, a 20-year-old from Belgium, is skilled with a good perimeter game but needs to add strength.
No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers Facts & Figures
Last season: 36-4, (16-2 Big Ten)
Postseason: NCAA runner-up
Consecutive NCAAs: 17
Big Ten projection: 5
Postseason projection: NCAA second round
Bronson Koenig took over as the starting point guard midway through last season when Traevon Jackson sustained a foot injury. Koenig’s decision-making is impressive — he committed only 33 turnovers in 1,152 minutes played — and he shot 40.5 percent from 3-point range. He’ll need to look to score more this season with several of Wisconsin’s top offensive weapons gone. Koenig, who’s been surrounded by veterans during his first two seasons, is now the third-oldest player on the team and knows he’ll be counted on to be more vocal on and off the court. “It’s definitely going to be a bit of a transition for me coming into that leadership role,” he says. “But I think last year kind of got me prepared for that.”
Even though Josh Gasser wasn’t counted on to score, he’ll be difficult to replace. The battle to fill the spot opposite Koenig features some interesting candidates. Zak Showalter is the most experienced and physically ready but needs to become a more consistent shooter. Jordan Hill, who redshirted last season, is a fiery player who expanded his offensive game while leading the scout team a year ago. Freshman Brevin Pritzl could provide much-needed scoring punch but has work to do on defense to gain Ryan’s trust.
Key Losses: F Sam Dekker, F Duje Dukan, G Josh Gasser, G Traevon Jackson, F/C Frank Kaminsky
Top Players: G Bronson Koenig, G Zak Showalter, G Jordan Hill, F Nigel Hayes, F Vitto Brown
Ethan Happ, who redshirted last season, is expected to play a major role in an inexperienced frontcourt. The Badgers may need one player from a group of Charlie Thomas, Alex Illikainen and Andy van Vliet to help provide depth. Van Vliet is 20 and arrives with experience against quality overseas competition. Brevin Pritzl’s ability to score in a variety of ways could help him get on the court early.
At the heart of Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Fours was an efficient offense that featured quality shooters at every position. This team may have to grind it out and rely more on its defense.
Rather than dwell on losing so much talent, Ryan chooses a glass-is-half-full approach. “I would think you have players who are extremely hungry,” he says. The Badgers had better be, because a hungry coach in his final season will be waiting for them.