Veterans make Badgers an intriguing team
The space between Final Four weekend and Midnight Madness is filled with more questions than answers across the college basketball landscape. For six months, debate rages about how good next year's teams will be, based entirely on past performance and unknown conjecture of the future.
At the University of Wisconsin, several questions exist as players report to summer school. But an early peek behind the curtain reveals the Badgers likely will be in better shape than most programs entering the 2012-13 season and could compete for a conference title in the rugged Big Ten.
Four of five starters return from a team that finished 26-10 and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season. Five of Wisconsin's top six scorers are back, and 70.7 percent of the Badgers' overall scoring returns.
Throw in one of the top Wisconsin recruits in years, and it's enough for some early preseason pollsters to rank the Badgers in the Top 25 nationally.
Of course, that doesn't mean the Badgers, like most programs, aren't without question marks. Wisconsin loses Jordan Taylor, their preseason All-America point guard from last year, and guard Rob Wilson — he of the famed 30-point game against Indiana last March — from the playing rotation.
Taylor's production in particular will be tough to replicate. He was the Badgers' unquestioned floor leader and set the NCAA career record for assists-to-turnovers ratio at 3.01.
"How do you replace the guy who set the national standard?" Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said recently. "Think about how many seconds of every possession Jordan Taylor had the ball in his hands. I told him because I let him and his teammates let him because they believed in him. That's what we have to replace."
So who, exactly, will replace Taylor?
At this stage, it could be any number of options. Ryan mentioned guard Josh Gasser's ability to play some point guard, as well as Traevon Jackson and George Marshall.
"I really don't know yet because we haven't had a chance to work with them," Ryan said.
Gasser, a two-year starter, has the most game experience. He has started 66 of the 70 games in which he's played the past two seasons, and he makes smart decisions with the ball. But the majority of his court time thus far has been as an off-guard.
Jackson, son of former NBA player Jim Jackson, played in 17 of 36 games last season and averaged 5.4 minutes, 1.1 points and 0.9 rebounds. His minutes tapered off the second half of the season when Ryan tightened his playing rotation.
Marshall, a 5-foot-11, 180-pounder from Chicago, took a redshirt season last year, though he could get significant time at point guard next season.
"I guess the best-kept secret in basketball right now, at least I think, is George Marshall," Wisconsin forward Mike Bruesewitz said. "He's a heck of a player. He gave us fits all year on the scout team, and that was him going against Jordan, going against Josh.
Bruesewitz, along with forward Ryan Evans and center Jared Berggren, returns as a starter in the frontcourt. The three started 108 games combined last season and embody Ryan's grit as a coach. They helped Wisconsin lead the nation in scoring defense last season at 53.2 points per game.
Evans is Wisconsin's leading returning scorer (11.0 points per game) and rebounder (6.8). Berggren averaged 10.5 points and 4.9 rebounds, while Bruesewitz was at 5.6 points and 5.1 rebounds.
Guard Ben Brust, a reserve last year, gives Wisconsin a 3-point threat. He averaged 7.3 points per game last season and twice tied the school record by burying seven 3-pointers in games.
Perhaps the most intriguing question is how incoming freshman Sam Dekker, a 6-8 guard/forward, will be used. Dekker, one of Wisconsin's most highly touted recruits in years, is ranked as the 15th-best player in the entire class of 2012 and the fourth-best small forward, according to Scout.com.
"I hope everything I've done to this point, all that work is going to pay off," Dekker said. "I think it will. It's not like they take anyone, so you've got to know they want you there to do something, so you've got to do it."
Dekker was named Mr. Basketball in Wisconsin last season after averaging 32.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.6 steals per game. He finished his high school career with 2,629 points, the fourth-best tally in state history.
This week, Dekker is participating in the Team USA U18 tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colo. If he makes the final 12-man roster, he'll travel to Brazil for the FIBA Americas U18 Championship.
"He's going in with the idea that he's going to try to make it," Ryan said. "If he doesn't, it'll be the experience that he can chalk up. He's good enough to compete with those guys, and now he'll get the chance."
There won't be many minutes to go around with four returning starters, but Dekker seems a good bet to find his way onto the floor. Redshirt junior forward Zach Bohannon and sophomore center Frank Kaminsky also are expected to be in the mix for playing time.
If it's to win the Big Ten title, Wisconsin will have to handle the likes of presumed preseason No. 1 Indiana, as well as Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. But given the breadth of talent on the Badgers' roster, there is plenty of reason for optimism in June.
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