In wake of Final Four loss, Badgers set sights on returning next season

The Badgers, who fell in a Final-Four heartbreaker to Kentucky, only lose one of their top-eight rotation players next season -- senior Ben Brust (left). Traevon Jackson (second from left), Bronson Koenig (second-right) and Sam Dekker (right) are among those expected to return.

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Arlington, Texas — Wading through emotions in the minutes after the most difficult loss Wisconsin’s players had ever endured was no easy task Saturday night. Without the benefit of time to reflect and dull the pain, a mix of shock and disappointment permeated the locker room with little room for much else.

Still, glimmers of hope for the future were evident after Kentucky’s 74-73 victory against Wisconsin in a national semifinal game at the Final Four in Arlington, Texas. The players willing to look ahead already realized the obvious about next year’s squad: that it likely will be one of the most skilled and experienced college basketball teams in the country.

Wisconsin’s near appearance in the championship game, coupled with the knowledge of its returning talent, served as all the motivation players needed.

"I think this will add even more fuel to what we want to be next year," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "I think there’s no secret what we want to be next year. We’ve got a lot of guys back. We’re just going to use this as fuel."

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Added center Frank Kaminsky: "This is a sour taste. We are going to be back next year. We are going to be better than ever. We will all be ready. It is going to be a long road to get back to here, but I know we will make it."

Indeed, expectations in Madison, around the state and across the college basketball landscape will be as high as perhaps they’ve ever been for a Wisconsin team. The Badgers very well could be a top-3 nationally ranked team when the first preseason poll hits in October.

Wisconsin is expected to return seven of its top eight rotation players, including four starters. Three of those starters averaged double figures in scoring this season: Kaminsky (13.9 points, 6.3 rebounds), who was an all-Big Ten first-team pick, along with Dekker (12.4 points, 6.1 rebounds) and point guard Traevon Jackson (13.7 points, 3.9 assists). The fourth returning starter, Josh Gasser (8.8 points, 4.0 rebounds), is the heart and soul of the team and a defensive stopper against the best players in the country.

In total, Wisconsin brings back 81.9 percent of its scoring, 85.8 percent of its rebounding and 89.1 percent of its assisting.

The biggest question is how Wisconsin will replace the production of guard Ben Brust, the team’s all-time leader in made 3-point field goals. Sophomore-to-be Bronson Koenig (3.5 points) appears a lock to fill many of the minutes occupied by Brust in the backcourt, but it remains to be seen what coach Bo Ryan does with his starting lineup.

He could opt for a two-guard starting rotation of Jackson and Gasser — which seems most likely — and a three-man frontcourt with Dekker, Big Ten sixth man of the year Nigel Hayes (7.7 points) and Kaminsky. Or he could instead choose to insert Koenig as the third starting guard, with Hayes coming off the bench. Duje Dukan (2.8 points), who will be a redshirt senior, would then be the second forward into the game.

"You’ve got a lot of guys who I know are going to put in a lot of work in the offseason," Brust said. "A lot of talent. Guys like Frank, Sam, Josh, Trae have now been through almost everything. And Duje’s been through a lot, too. And young guys like Nigel and Bronson, the experience that they’ve gained this year, it’s going to pay dividends for them in the long run. They’re going to be a great team next year, as well."

The rest of Ryan’s rotation is up in the air, though sophomore-to-be Vitto Brown — who made a brief appearance in the Final Four game — would appear to have the inside track in the frontcourt. Zak Showalter, who will be a redshirt sophomore, could provide the perfect combination of energy and talent to give the guard rotation a boost for a few minutes off the bench. Though Showalter redshirted this past season, he did play in 22 games as a true freshman and averaged 6.7 minutes and 1.7 points.

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"They know we have to get better in areas," Ryan said. "I’m already talking about next year."

Incoming freshman forward, Ethan Happ, the only scholarship player for Wisconsin’s Class of 2014, could work his way into the lineup as well, depending on how physically prepared he is for the college game. But whatever lineup Ryan chooses, he’ll have a wealth of talent and depth sure to make Wisconsin a favorite to return to another Final Four.

Of course, all those questions won’t be answered for months. In the meantime, all returning players can do is regroup, work to improve during the offseason and come prepared for the 2014-15 season with a championship mission.

"We had a team and a dream, and this was our dream and we wanted to get here together," Dekker said. "It sucks to not be able to go all the way. I think we can just add this to our list as something to always remember Kentucky. Always remember what happened and what position you want to be in next year, how you can get yourself better so we can get to the next step and get to that final."

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