There’s little doubt this is the most anticipated and hyped season of Badger men’s basketball in program history. A Final Four team returning nearly every piece of the puzzle, a solid group of freshmen growing up and venerable Bo Ryan at the helm — what’s not to love?
Despite all of those things, there are still plenty of questions to be answered as the 2014-15 Badger men’s basketball season gets underway later this week. As such, we’re going to begin our preview of the team with a look at the questions that need to be answered if Wisconsin wants to be a championship-level team.
Can Nigel Hayes be a star as a starter?
Wisconsin has had just one exhibition game, and was without Sam Dekker, but we saw Nigel Hayes in the starting lineup against Wisconsin-Parkside. UW won’t go three-guard on us it appears, but will insert Hayes in to the starting lineup regardless of Dekker’s availability against Northern Kentucky.
Last season Hayes was named the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year, and rightfully so considering he averaged 7.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, shot 51 percent from the field and played the most minutes of any player not in the starting five for the Badgers.
However, it’s one thing to play in a limited and measured role and a completely different thing to do it from the opening tip. Can Hayes be the spark plug he was off the bench from the get go?
We may have gotten some idea that Hayes will be fine in the exhibition opener, as he went for 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting and had 11 rebounds to lead UW in that category. What was important was seeing him be efficient with his shots, more than the final point or rebound total.
Now, can that translate to better competition overall? Let’s see it in a game against a D1 team before we have an answer.
Will Bronson Koenig be a game-changer?
Wisconsin is going to miss the sharp shooting of Ben Brust, but they could have an answer off the bench in sophomore Bronson Koenig. He became more and more confident as last season went on, a mark of a freshman not overwhelmed by the grind of the season or the moment his team was in.
During the NCAA tournament, Koenig had his best game in the Final Four loss to Kentucky. He tallied 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting and played 20 minutes. That was a mark of the confidence the Badgers coaching staff had in him.
However, he’ll move up the depth char this year and will be counted on to be more of a scorer than a distributor given the loss of Brust from the backcourt. The question is, can he go from showing flashes of his potential to a player who is living up to it?
Wisconsin’s offense is likely going to need him to be a better perimeter shooter than he was a season ago (32.8 percent). If he can be that, then the Badgers have the game-changer they need for the future in this backcourt.
Just how deep is this team?
Last season we saw this team go eight deep as the season moved on thanks to wing Duje Dukan’s surprise emergence as a contributor that could be counted on. Given the fact that Wisconsin only has one player gone, that should bode well for UW to be a deep team.
However, the Badgers need to find at least one player to emerge this season the way Dukan did last year thanks to Nigel Hayes moving in to the starting lineup. It means sophomore Vitto Brown and freshman Ethan Happ will be vying for playing time off the bench at forward, while UW will also get now redshirt sophomore Zak Showalter in the mix at guard.
On paper, that trio seemed to do good work off the bench against Parkside, but a lot of it came in garbage time after UW’s starters sealed up the victory. If that group is as good as it appeared to be against Parkside, then the Badgers could be as versatile as they have ever been under Bo Ryan.
Let’s just say this…it certainly appears that one of the biggest strengths of this team very well could be the number of players who could put this team on its back on any given night.
Has the team bought in to the hype?
One of the biggest questions this season is can Wisconsin shut out all the hype around the program and focus on the task at hand. When you’ve got preseason No. 1 votes, the No. 3 ranking and national magazines profiling you at every turn it’s definitely different than a normal offseason.
However, the Badgers have an ace in the hole to make them stay humble — head coach Bo Ryan. If there’s ever a coach who could care less about the outside stuff it is Bo, and you can bet he’ll make sure his team isn’t buying in to the hype.
That said, there’s never any guarantee and plenty of opportunity to fall victim to all the talk. It’s a concern, but a minor one given the man at the helm and the hunger of the players in the program.
Is Big Ten as good as it has been?
If you don’t know by now…the NCAA tournament is all about RPI rankings and conference stature when it is all said and done on Selection Sunday. That means, regardless of what happens in the win-loss columns you’re going to need some help along the way from the rest of the league.
That’s where this question comes in, as the conference lost a ton of its top talent (both underclassmen and seniors) to the NBA and graduation. I bet it would be difficult for the casual Badger fan to name anyone still in the Big Ten outside of the Badgers, that’s how much talent is gone.
Looking the preseason rankings, one would be led to believe the conference is in a bit of a decline or at the very least has the country in wait-and-see mode. I mean, after Wisconsin at No. 3 in the AP poll, you have to go down to No. 18 to see another Big Ten team (Michigan State) and from there the conference has Ohio State (No. 20), Nebraska (No. 21) and Michigan (No. 24).
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the strength of the conference to start the season. So, Big Ten…STEP YOUR GAME UP! Help the Badgers out a little in non-conference play, will ya?