Thereâ€™s little doubt that the talent coming in to the Wisconsin Badgers program has taken a significant jump in recent years. Two NBA Draft picks this season alone speaks volumes to the abilities of this coaching staff to find talent and coach it to new heights.
However, after reaching back-to-back Final Fours the level of expectation from the casual fan base and national attention have never been higher. Those two things could be a big issue heading in to the 2015-16 season, and thatâ€™s because the Badgers are replacing the majority of the teams that made it to those two Final Fours.
Gone are 1st round NBA draft picks Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. Also gone is one of two players in the 1,000-point, 500-rebound, 250-assist club in UW history â€” Josh Gasser. Two more players, Duje Dukan and Traevon Jackson, have made NBA Summer League rosters as well.
Needless to say, thatâ€™s a lot of firepower to replace.
Ryan will have to build this team around two players very different from the focal points of the past two seasons. Next year Ryanâ€™s Badgers will have two starters back in point guard Bronson Koenig and forward Nigel Hayes.
Those are nice starting points to be sure, as Koenig seamlessly transitioned from the sixth man to a starters role in early January and Hayes was a starter all of last season. In fact, Hayes ended last season third on the team in scoring (12.4 ppg), second on the team in rebounding (6.2 rpg) and shot 49.7 percent from the field.
Koenig will be the second leading returning scorer, averaging 8.7 points per game as a part-time starter last year. He also will be the leading returner in assists, putting up 98 of them in his sophomore season.
So, those are two really good building blocks and a dangerous combination as a pass-first point guard and a forward who has begun to stretch his game out beyond the arc and still has the ability to bang down low as well.
However, Wisconsin has absolutely little in the way of experience coming back to the program beyond those two players. Zak Showalter is the other player with “experience” on the roster, but he managed only 7.2 minutes per game in 35 games last season. He also shot just 43.4 percent from the field and averaged just 2.1 points per game.
Therein lies the problem heading in to next season â€” the Badgers are not only going to be inexperienced, but they are also going to have to rely on a lot of young players. Doing that is not exactly the M.O. of Bo Ryan and his coaching staff, as there have been just three freshmen who have started for the Badgers under Ryanâ€™s tutelage.
Next season, his last, may be the mold breaker though. Thatâ€™s because redshirt freshman big man, Ethan Happ, is going to have to step up in to the role vacated by Kaminsky. Happ, a 6-9, 230-pound player isnâ€™t nearly the same player as Kaminsky, but heâ€™ll need to provide some length and stretch the court with his outside shooting ability.
Perhaps no one player holds the key to next seasonâ€™s ultimate success or failure more so than junior Vitto Brown. Over the course of his first two years, the 6-8, 237-pounder has grown by leaps and bounds on the defensive end of the court and been more of a liability than anything else. He played in 34 games last season, but averaged just 6.4 minutes and shot the ball just 10 times…on the season.
If the Badgers are going to do good things, theyâ€™ll need another scoring option up front besides Hayes. Brown hasnâ€™t proven to be a reliable shot maker with his jump shot and we really havenâ€™t seen much of him with his back to the basket just yet. Unless we see a significant jump, Brown remains a potential liability for this team on the offensive end. He also still needs to show he can stay out of foul trouble, as he picked up 38 personal fouls in just 214 minutes played the entire 2014-15 season.
Outside of Happ, incoming freshmen like Alex Illikainen (power forward), Khalil Iverson (forward) and Brevin Pritzl (guard) are going to have to play a part in the rotation. Both have potential, as Pritzl is a great spot-up shooter with deep range and Iverson has a nice looking game with his back to the basket.
Pritzl comes in as the highest-rated member of the 2015 class, coming is as the No. 91 player in the country, the No. 29 shooting guard and the No. 3 player in the state of Wisconsin. Illikainen comes in next, ranking No. 142 nationally, No. 34 at power forward and No. 1 in New Hampshire as a member of Brewester Academy.
With all the new parts coming in and the lack of a deep bench or rotation last season, thereâ€™s very little in the way of known quantities heading in to Ryanâ€™s final season. Given all of those moving parts and question marks, Ryan is likely to have his hands full in a big way.
It could be the hardest coaching job of a single team Ryan will have faced since the 2008-08 season, with Jon Leuer just a sophomore and names like Joe Krabenhoft and Marcus Landry as senior leaders.
Time will tell, but if the Badgers do big things in 2015-16, it wouldnâ€™t be a stretch to think of the year as one of the greatest coaching jobs Ryan has ever done. For a career and a coach like Ryan, there may be no more satisfying way to end a career than by coaching a bunch of new players and a new looking team to success.