MADISON, Wis. — NCAA tournament games will continue this week, and for most college basketball fans, it serves as a delightful reminder of why this is the greatest month in sports. For Wisconsin basketball fans, it serves as a painful reminder the Badgers are no longer participating and therefore can’t possibly be considered the greatest month in sports anymore.
The season is over. Wisconsin lost 57-46 to Ole Miss in a round-of-64 game on Friday that typified the Badgers’ entire season. Good defense. Bad offense. It marked just the second time in Badgers coach Bo Ryan’s 12 seasons that his team failed to make it out of the first game of the big dance.
Some want to suggest Ryan has lost his touch, that his style of play will never lead to a Final Four berth. Only once have the Badgers reached the Elite Eight during his tenure. But this year’s team also was painfully flawed. The Badgers weren’t athletically gifted enough to create open shots, and they simply didn’t make enough shots to scare anybody.
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Now, questions about the future arise.
Can Wisconsin be better next season? What can the Badgers do differently? Who will step in to replace the leadership provided by Mike Bruesewitz, Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans?
It’s early — practices don’t begin for roughly 6 1/2 months — but here’s an attempt to come up with some answers as to what the Badgers might look like.
Let’s start in the backcourt because it likely will serve as the Badgers’ strongest area.
Josh Gasser will return from his ACL injury and should take over as the team’s starting point guard. Gasser started 66 of 70 games in his first two seasons with the program and was expected to slide over from off-guard to the point last season before suffering a season-ending ACL tear on Oct. 27. He ranks fifth in program history in assists-to-turnovers ratio (1.95) and should instantly provide the kind of steadying presence that this year’s team lacked for much of the season.
Gasser has earned the respect of teammates for his hard work, and the ability to command a team every day in practice and games is of profound importance in a league as tough as the Big Ten. He averaged 7.6 points per game in 2011-12 and will probably need to increase his point total considerably for the team to succeed.
Ben Brust, who was Wisconsin’s most improved player last season, will occupy the off-guard spot for his senior season. Brust averaged a team-best 11.1 points to go with 5.1 rebounds and showed his capabilities as a leader in Gasser’s absence.
Because of Gasser’s injury, point guards Traevon Jackson and George Marshall gained minutes they wouldn’t have otherwise seen, so all four backcourt players will have the experience to step in during critical moments if necessary. It remains to be seen how much Jackson and Marshall will be used next season because Gasser surely will play more than 30 minutes per game, as will Brust. Brust led the team in minutes played this season, averaging 34.3, while Gasser played 34.1 minutes per game in 2011-12, and those two should be the most vocal leaders on the floor. Add incoming freshman Bronson Koenig, a 6-foot-2 guard from La Crosse, and the Badgers are loaded in the backcourt.
“Traevon has really grown up the past couple months,” Gasser said last week. “He’s gotten a lot better. I saw it in him all summer and fall. He needed his opportunity, and he’s taken advantage of it. A guy like George is still learning, but I think those guys are going to be better than ever next year. With Ben back and myself, we should have a pretty good backcourt. I’m excited for that.”
The frontcourt will be the biggest question mark surrounding Wisconsin given the departures of Berggren, Bruesewitz and Evans. Collectively, they accounted for 52.3 percent of the team’s rebounds and 41.6 percent of Wisconsin’s scoring.
The good news for Wisconsin fans is that sophomore-to-be Sam Dekker will surely slide into the lineup at the 3 or 4 position. Many fans clamored for Dekker to play more minutes this season because of his natural scoring ability. He averaged 9.6 points in 22.3 minutes per game. Expect him to take a significant jump next season.
Frank Kaminsky also appears to have done enough to earn the team’s starting center position. Kaminsky averaged 4.2 points in 10.3 minutes per game while serving as Berggren’s backup, but he’ll need to become a better post player. He took 45 3-pointers last season compared to 53 2-pointers. That’s too many 3s for a player that stands 6-11, and it makes it more difficult for the Badgers to snag offensive rebounds. Still, he follows in the mold of versatile big men under Ryan and should be ready to see more minutes.
The other frontcourt slot remains a mystery at this juncture because no frontcourt player on the roster saw more than 80 minutes this season. If Ryan is willing to give a freshman an opportunity to start, it could be forward Vitto Brown. Brown, a 6-8 forward from Bowling Green High School in Ohio, averaged 23.7 points and 13.0 rebounds as a senior. He set the school record for rebounds (808) and blocked shots (336) and could be the freshman most ready to make an immediate impact next season.
And if Brown isn’t quite ready for a starring role, senior Zach Bohannon has experience to step in as well. Bohannon, who appeared in 17 games last season and 80 total minutes, played in 39 games during two seasons at Air Force.
With Gasser, Brust and Dekker leading the way next season, Wisconsin is in good hands. Just because the Badgers fizzled out of the NCAA tournament this season does not mean they are cooked in the long term. Gasser will return, and Ryan is bringing in a talented recruiting class — with a couple proven scorers — which should give Wisconsin the offensive boost it desperately needs.