MADISON, Wis. — If you are so inclined to look at preseason college basketball top-25 rankings three months before the first practice even begins, you’ll find a common theme involving Wisconsin’s 2014-15 team — one of top-four rankings and Final Four predictions.
The exact way-too-early forecasts from major media outlets reveal these rankings: Bleacher Report (1), SI.com (2), SBNation.com (2), Sporting News (3), NBCSports.com (3), USA Today (3), TheBigLead.com (3), CBSSports.com (4) and ESPN.com (4).
In fact, it’s safe to say expectations will be as high as they’ve ever been entering a season since coach Bo Ryan arrived at Wisconsin in 2001. With seven of the team’s top eight rotation players returning off a Final Four squad, the Badgers are sure to be the Big Ten favorites — and a trendy pick to play for a national title.
Through the summer months, Wisconsin players are doing their best to avoid the chatter about what is supposed to happen to this team. And so, there will be no bold predictions made about winning a conference title or a national championship. While outward expectations remain high, expectations within the program have never changed.
"It’s good to have some national attention, I guess," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "But we deserve it. What we did last year, we put ourselves in a pretty good position to have that happen this year. And every year internally we have these expectations. The expectations are more so with the outside world, the fans, the media and stuff like that. So internally in my four years, we’ve always had expectations of winning a Big Ten title, always once tournament time comes to make it to the Final Four and win the whole thing. So nothing has really changed with us necessarily. It’s just kind of the outside world that has."
That outside world is revved up about a Wisconsin team that brings back four of five starters — potential NBA first-round picks Frank Kaminsky (13.9 points, 6.3 rebounds) and Sam Dekker (12.4 points, 6.1 rebounds), along with Gasser and point guard Traevon Jackson. The Badgers also return 81.7 percent of their scoring, 85.8 percent of their rebounding and 88.8 percent of their assists. The lone significant contributor gone off last year’s team is shooting guard Ben Brust (12.8 points, 4.5 rebounds). UW likely will replace him in the starting lineup with forward Nigel Hayes and move guard Bronson Koenig up in the rotation.
Gasser said he could sense a special season on the horizon for Wisconsin but cautioned not to get too caught up in the hype.
"Nothing is going to be given to us," he said. "We have to go out there and take everything. The margin of error between whoever we play is very small. So if we don’t play harder than other teams, we’re not that good. Overall, we’re a good team. I really like what we have at each position. We’ve got a veteran coach. But again, we haven’t really done anything yet.
"We made a Final Four, which is great. But the great thing that I like about our team is we were all really disappointed at the end of the year. Coming into the summer, we’re not satisfied at all with what we’ve got. So we’re trying to get back again and hopefully finish it off."
A year ago, Wisconsin opened the season ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press poll. But after winning 16 consecutive games to begin the year, the Badgers climbed to No. 3. UW then lost five of six Big Ten games but responded by winning 13 of its next 15 and came within an Aaron Harrison 3-pointer against Kentucky away from making the national title game.
Dekker noted the way the Badgers handled themselves last year as the pressure mounted was a good sign moving forward because expectations could reach exceedingly high levels.
"Expectations are good because it means you have something to live up to and you have something to prove," Dekker said. "So high expectations aren’t ever a bad thing. I think we have a group of guys that want to exceed to even higher expectations. I’m pretty excited about the team we have. But we have a lot of work to do. We have some goals we want to accomplish.
"We haven’t won a Big Ten title with this group. We haven’t won a championship, really. So they say we did all this stuff, but at the end of the day, we didn’t really hang any banners or anything. We have more to do. So I don’t think by any means we’re content really with what we did last year. Obviously, it was a great run. I’m not going to say we’re not happy about it. Going to the Final Four is something every kid dreams about doing. But we want to do a little more, I think.
"You can’t jump to conclusions because it’s basketball. Crazy things happen. If we do things the right way, we’ll put ourselves in position to hopefully do it again."