MADISON, Wis. — No one will ever mistake the pace of Wisconsin’s basketball team for Houston’s famed Phi Slama Jama bunch of the 1980s or UNLV’s run-and-gun style under Tark the Shark in the early 1990s. In fact, the Badgers’ plodding play has represented the complete antithesis of such explosive offenses for years.
But before you hit the snooze button on another season of Wisconsin hoops, consider that the 2013-14 version may be the quickest Badgers team in quite some time — out of necessity and sheer depth in the backcourt. To hear players tell it, they expect such a change.
It may not exactly force scoreboard operators into a lather, but for a team that traditionally ranks near the bottom nationally in possessions per game, it is something.
“If we have it, why not use it?” Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson said during the team’s annual preseason media day on Friday afternoon. “It can help improve our team.”
Wisconsin returns Jackson and guard Ben Brust, who combined to start 64 games last season in the backcourt. Reserves George Marshall and Zak Showalter also are back. Couple that with the addition of freshman guards Bronson Koenig, Jordan Hill and Riley Dearring, as well as the return of standout guard Josh Gasser from an ACL injury, and the Badgers are as deep in the backcourt as they have been in years.
“You think 12 guards is a lot?” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan deadpanned. “It just panned out this way. It keeps a very high competitive level in the backcourt and all our drills and all our possessions.”
Gasser’s return in particular has been one of the most discussed storylines of the past year. Last season, Gasser was prepared to take over as Wisconsin’s starting point guard until he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee on Oct. 27 — just days before the Badgers’ season began. Instead, Jackson and Marshall split duties at point guard, gaining valuable experience while Gasser recovered.
Gasser, Brust, Marshall and Jackson have played in a combined 243 games with 136 starts. And that type of experience — coupled with the relative lack of experience in the frontcourt — could lead Ryan to play with a three-guard lineup this season, which could in turn create more opportunities to run the floor.
“I think it can because you get a rebound or a turnover, you don’t have to necessarily look for one guy to get out and go,” Gasser said. “If we have two or three or four guards out there, you can get it and whoever’s got it can go and run the offense.
“Different guys can be in different spots on the floor. I don’t think it has to be as structured that way. I think that’s definitely going to be beneficial for our team.”
Wisconsin has ranked among the bottom 25 Division I teams in possessions per game in each of the past five seasons. Four times during that span, the Badgers have been ranked in the bottom 10, and two years ago, they were last among 344 D-I programs. It is worth noting that Wisconsin increased its possessions by more than three per game last season to 62.3, and that was with a big frontcourt that featured Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans — each of whom has since used up their eligibility.
“Obviously there’s going to be a smaller lineup at times than there was with Jared, Mike and Ryan,” Badgers center Frank Kaminsky said. “They were great players. But they weren’t the best-running offensive players. I feel like we’ve got a lot of opportunity to get up and down the court this year.”
Of course, the speed at which Wisconsin plays could depend heavily on how quickly the Badgers’ six freshmen — Koenig, Hill, Dearring, Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown and Aaron Moesch — acclimate to Ryan’s system. Ryan is meticulous in the way he preaches defense, handling block-to-block situations or hedging ballscreens a particular way. And without first understanding those defensive principles, players won’t be given many chances to contribute on offense.
Each freshman saw first-hand what a game atmosphere resembled when Wisconsin traveled to Canada for a five-game, eight-day trip in August.
“We got to see how coach Ryan is during games, what we can expect,” said Hayes, a 6-foot-7, 250-pound forward. “We got to watch the upperclassmen when we weren’t playing, how they react to certain situations. I think it was a great learning experience for us.”
Because of the departures of Berggren, Bruesewitz and Evans, there are minutes to be had in the frontcourt — each averaged at least 28 minutes per game last season. Sophomore forward Sam Dekker (9.6 points per game last season as the sixth man) is poised to be the Badgers’ leading scorer, while the 6-11 Kaminsky should be UW’s starting center. Dekker led the Badgers in scoring three times on the team’s Canadian trip and averaged 19.4 points per game, while Kaminsky followed at 15.0 points per game.
Hayes and redshirt junior forward Duje Dukan appear to have the inside track on backup minutes at the “4” spot, while Brown and redshirt senior Zach Bohannon also are in the mix.
Ryan, like many coaches at this time of year, is eager to see how all the pieces will fall in place — and just how, exactly, this team will play when Wisconsin opens the regular season against St. John’s on Nov. 8.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of question marks,” Ryan said. “Every time we do a drill, we put a freshman with an upperclassman and they help them through the drills, especially partner drills. And they’ve worked pretty well together. Pretty spirited group.
“Will youth be served or will the youth get served? I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see. But it’s fun working with guys who are listening and trying to grasp what we’re teaching. It’s a great group for that.”