Kennesaw State-Wisconsin Preview
Wisconsin's shot at the Big Ten title and another NCAA tournament run is anchored by a known commodity in senior guard Jordan Taylor, who is expected to be one of the best players in the country this season.
Taylor's supporting cast is promising but largely lacks experience, and the way the Badgers' young players develop will go a long way toward determining whether they live up to high expectations.
And Taylor will have a hand in helping them develop as the 15th-ranked Badgers open the season Saturday versus Kennesaw State at the Kohl Center.
Jon Leuer is gone, leaving Taylor as the Badgers' unquestioned leader. He's embracing the role, leaning on what he learned from teammates in the past.
"During my freshman year, Joe Krabbenhoft and Marcus Landry were two of the best leaders I think I've been around," Taylor said. "They were extremely encouraging, but they also would let you know if you weren't doing something right or what you need to do better. There is a fine line, not to yell at guys. You know which guys you can yell at and which you can't. Just trying to help your teammates in any way you can."
Badgers coach Bo Ryan expects Taylor to take over - but not necessarily by scoring more. Taylor averaged 18.1 points per game last season, but his NCAA-best 3.83 assist-to-turnover ratio might be his most impressive asset.
"I just hope he doesn't think he has to score 40 a game this year," Ryan said. "I think we're going to be in trouble if he does. He doesn't. He wants to be even more consistent. He wants to be more inclusive with his teammates, maybe in transition. There are different things we're looking at in trying to get done with a different-sized team maybe on the floor."
Wisconsin went 25-9 last season, finishing third in the Big Ten. The Badgers made their 13th straight NCAA tournament appearance and advanced past the first weekend of the tournament for the second time in the past six seasons, losing to Butler in the regional semifinals.
"It's definitely something that sticks with you, knowing you were so close to reaching the goal," sophomore guard Josh Gasser said. "The way we lost, also, it stuck a little longer. In the offseason, it is good fuel to fire you to work harder and get better. We know we could have done better and we lost the game by losing it ourselves. We didn't necessarily get beat by another team, we got beat by a very good team. We know we can improve on that. It definitely was good fuel to fire us up in the offseason."
Leuer led the Badgers with 18.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game last season, and was taken by the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the NBA draft.
That's a big loss, and the Badgers also must replace their other two frontcourt starters from last year, forward Keaton Nankivil (9.7 points, 4.2 rebounds) and guard/forward Tim Jarmusz (3.9 points, 2.2 rebounds).
The Badgers don't have a lot of experienced big men to take their place.
"We might not be as big," Ryan said. "We could be. ... But then again, we might not be."
They'll have to be ready for a non-conference schedule that includes a Nov. 30 visit to North Carolina and a Dec. 3 home game against in-state rival Marquette.
Ryan will expect bigger things from junior forward Mike Bruesewitz, who played well in the tournament but wants to become more consistent this season.
"I'm one of those guys who could tell the amount of mistakes I made instead of the good things I've done," Bruesewitz said. "I'm more concerned with the areas I messed up on and made mistakes on. I feel I can improve shooting percentages and rebounding numbers. And defensively, change games more defensively. Be the guy who shuts the other team's best post player down."
The Badgers also will be expecting significant contributions from 6-10 junior forward/center Jared Berggren and 6-10 center Evan Anderson, who redshirted last season. If the Badgers go small, they could turn to senior Rob Wilson - although Wilson has missed time in practice with an undisclosed injury - and junior Ryan Evans.
Of the Badgers' freshmen, 6-8 forward Jarrod Uthoff has caught Ryan's eye early in practice.
"He is a player," Ryan said. "Better than expected. But don't tell him I said that."
The Badgers also have high hopes for Gasser, who started and played well as a freshman last year. Gasser looks up to Taylor, and wants to emulate his game.
"When it looks like he's covered, just getting that extra step away from a defender and finding a way to finish," Gasser said. "He's got great finishing ability, great strength and explosiveness. It's tough to teach but watching him and covering him the past year, I definitely learned a lot from him. And hopefully, I can use that."
Gasser said Taylor's leadership will be critical for the Badgers this year.
"The kid works harder than anyone that I've seen," Gasser said. "He's got so much talent. But the thing that I think separates him is his leadership. He just makes whoever plays around him better."
Lewis Preston will be making his coaching debut for Kennesaw State after serving as an assistant at Penn State the past four seasons. Preston will have the luxury of leaning on junior Markeith Cummings, who led the Atlantic Sun Conference in scoring at 18.3 points per game in 2010-11.
Preston's primary concern, though, will be improving a defense that allowed opponents to shoot 46.5 percent and average 74.8 points - the worst marks in the Atlantic Sun.
This is the first meeting between Kennesaw State and Wisconsin.