Nigel Hayes, experienced Badgers look to claim Big Ten title
One of Greg Gard’s biggest challenges in his first full season as Wisconsin’s coach might be distributing playing time on a deep and experienced roster.
The Badgers return their top 10 players in terms of minutes played from a team that overcame some midseason turmoil to extend the program’s impressive run of top-four finishes in the Big Ten to 15 seasons.
“There will be a lot of guys fighting for minutes,” says Gard, who went 15–8 after taking over the program following the shocking midseason retirement of his mentor, Bo Ryan. “It’ll be very competitive.”
Naturally, massive expectations await the Badgers. But the good news for Gard is that he has a group of seniors who have been through this before after being part of a team that began the 2014-15 season under a lot of pressure to return to the Final Four and ended it as the NCAA Tournament runner-up.
All Big Ten predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Greg Gard
2015-16 RECORD (BIG TEN): 22–13 (12–6)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Notre Dame 61–56 in the Sweet 16
2016-17 PREDICTION: First in the Big Ten
KEY LOSSES: None
Nigel Hayes entered the NBA Draft but pulled out prior to the deadline. He returns after an uneven junior season during which he led the team in scoring and assists but struggled mightily with his shot, particularly from the perimeter. After shooting 39.6 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore alongside future NBA first-rounders Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, Hayes shot 29.3 percent from beyond the arc last season after moving into the role as go-to player.
Still, Hayes draws plenty of attention, and that creates scoring opportunities for Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown. Happ had an outstanding redshirt freshman season and spent the offseason working to expand his game beyond the paint — all 163 of his made field goals were from 2-point range last season. Brown is looking to pick up where he left off after a strong finish to last season: Over the last 13 games, he averaged 11.8 points and went 28-of-58 (48.3 percent) from beyond the arc.
Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas went through the ups and downs expected of freshmen last season, but both should be more consistent with a year of experience under their belts. The X-factor in the frontcourt is Andy Van Vliet, who sat out last season after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA because he didn’t enroll at Wisconsin within one year of graduating from high school. Van Vliet, a Belgium native who has experience playing overseas, is long and athletic. More important, he gives the Badgers another perimeter shooter in the lineup.
Bronson Koenig made 44 more 3-pointers than any other player on the roster as a junior and hit two-game winning shots, including a buzzer beater from beyond the arc vs. Xavier to send the Badgers to the Sweet 16. The next steps for Koenig are to become a more vocal floor leader and to get better at attacking defenses off the dribble.
Zak Showalter had a solid first season as a starter. In addition to being the team’s best perimeter defender, he provides hustle that is often an energy source for the Badgers. Any offense Showalter can give Wisconsin — he averaged 7.5 points and shot 34.6 percent from 3-point range as a junior — is a bonus.
Jordan Hill went from playing sparingly early in the season to being a key reserve once Gard took over, and he can play either guard spot. Khalil Iverson is the most athletic player on the roster and could be a terrific all-around player if he develops an outside shot. Brevin Pritzl was expected to provide scoring help off the bench last season but was limited to just four minutes because of a foot injury and used a medical redshirt.
Andy Van Vliet, a Belgium native who sat out last season due to NCAA eligibility issues, is a skilled big man with an outside touch. D’Mitrik Trice and Aleem Ford were teammates at IMG Academy in Florida. While Ford could be a redshirt candidate because of a crowded frontcourt, Trice may earn minutes as a backup point guard.
When the Badgers were 9–9 overall and 1–4 in the Big Ten in mid-January last season, they were in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. But Gard righted the ship and had his interim label removed before the postseason even began.
Now, Wisconsin begins the season as one of the favorites in the Big Ten and has designs on making a run to the Final Four for the third time in four seasons.
Not only does Gard have at this disposal two experienced stars — Hayes and Koenig have been on the court for 11 NCAA Tournament victories — but he also has complementary pieces in Happ, Brown and Showalter and a group of young reserves eager for expanded roles.
“People have to fight for their spots, so there are no guarantees,” Brown says. “That’s definitely a good thing.”