Badgers must step up with Taylor gone
MADISON, Wis. — Perhaps there was no greater snapshot of Wisconsin's basketball season a year ago than the final sequence of the team's final game in the NCAA tournament.
Badgers senior point guard Jordan Taylor, a preseason all-American and the heart of his team, held the ball in the waning seconds with the fate of Wisconsin in his hands. He passed to teammate Rob Wilson, who immediately passed back to Taylor. Taylor, in turn, fired a contested 3-pointer that fell short with three seconds left, and the Badgers' season ended in heartbreak, a 64-63 loss to top-seeded Syracuse in the Sweet 16.
In the most difficult of situations, Taylor was called upon to carry Wisconsin. Through no fault of his own, it appeared sometimes to happen to the detriment of the team as his teammates stood around and watched.
"Last year, everyone kind of knew that at the end of the shot clock, the ball was most likely going to Jordan's hands and he was going to end up making a play for us," Badgers center Jared Berggren said Tuesday during the team's media day.
"I think at times we got a little bit predictable or sometimes guys got a little bit reliant with, 'I'm not going to make a play because there's 15 seconds left and we're going to give the ball to Jordan. He's going to go do his thing like he always does.' "
The question is: Can this year's team be better without Taylor?
Maybe it's considered nearly blasphemous in some circles to suggest such a thing given Taylor's enormous accomplishments, which included the best assists-to-turnovers ratio in NCAA history (3.01). But the Badgers appear ready to move on without Taylor, although it certainly won't be easy.
"You're not going to single-handedly replace Jordan Taylor," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "He's that special of a player. Our roles will be elevated, so it's going to be a collective group effort to fill that."
Gasser, a junior, is among the likely candidates to slide over and play some point guard.
A year ago, Gasser averaged 7.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game as the team's shooting guard. He also ranks fifth in school history with a 1.95 assists-to-turnovers ratio.
"I think he'll be a scoring threat," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "By him being better as a scoring threat, that's going to help the other guys on the floor. He's handling the ball well. The couple hours we had in the summer were tremendous."
Gasser and redshirt freshman George Marshall are expected to share duties at point guard. Marshall, a tough, quick player from Chicago, earned praise from Taylor last season while serving as the Badgers' scout team point guard. Marshall possesses a knack for exploding to the rim or creating his own shot off the dribble.
"I think this year we have a lot more established options," Marshall said. "So just relying on one person to make something happen at the end of the shot clock, I don't think teams can focus in on that this year. We have a few guys who can make something happen. I definitely feel like that's a good thing."
Sophomore Traevon Jackson, who appeared in 17 games, also could see playing time at point guard.
Ryan said he wasn't exactly looking for a player to do what Taylor did for the team the past few seasons. Last year, Taylor led the Badgers in scoring (14.8 points) and assists per game (4.1).
"You know the stats," Ryan said. "The last two years with Jordan pretty much controlling the offense, (we had) 51 wins.
"A lot of things he did with the ball, there's a lot of guys who aren't as effective with the ball and doing that. But I'm not asking the next person that plays that position to be the other person that they're replacing."
Wisconsin's scoring should be plenty balanced in Taylor's absence. The Badgers bring back four starters, including the entire frontcourt of forward Mike Bruesewitz, forward Ryan Evans and Berggren, the team's center. Bruesewitz is out four to six weeks with a lacerated right leg but is expected to be ready to play by mid-November.
Junior guard Ben Brust, the team's sixth man a year ago, averaged 7.3 points and twice tied the school record for 3-pointers in a game with seven. The Badgers also will add five-star freshman forward Sam Dekker to the mix.
Wisconsin returns 70.6 percent of its scoring, 84.4 percent of its rebounding and 60.5 percent of its assists. For all those reasons, the Badgers are ranked No. 21 in the preseason coaches poll.
The key for Wisconsin's players will be finding the confidence to know they can score in crucial situations, even without Taylor.
"What you hope for is a team where you're so well blended that they can't zero in on one or two players," Ryan said. "And that's what I like about this mix right now."
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