Badgers know expectations fly high after last season’s Final Four run

Duje Dukan (left), Frank Kaminsky (center) and Josh Gasser (right) are hoping to lead the Badgers on a return trip to the Final Four.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

MADISON, Wis. — As a general rule, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan does not compare teams from year to year. Every group’s makeup is different and unique to that season, and therefore, Ryan never has seen a need to prop one team up while pulling another one down.

Yet even Ryan acknowledged Tuesday the specter hanging over this year’s team, which already has established itself as quite possibly the single greatest basketball team in program history. The reality is this: Last year’s Badgers reached Wisconsin’s first Final Four in 14 years. And unless the 2014-15 incarnation does the same, they will forever play second fiddle in the eyes of some.

"The only way this team will prove that they’re better is to do what last year’s team did and then some, I would think," Ryan said. "Because that’s how everybody else judges. That’s not necessarily how I judge, but as far as outside looking in, people are going to want to see what this group can do because of expectations or things that have happened before."

Perhaps that notion represents a fundamental flaw in the way teams ultimately are viewed. This year’s Wisconsin team already has captured the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament titles for the first time since 2008. And Wisconsin (31-3) has matched the single-season program record for victories while earning its first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history.

But postseason success tends to take precedence over regular season wins. Wichita State, for example, produced a great season a year ago and still was bounced in the second game of the NCAA tournament. While those Shockers finished 35-1, the caveat will forever be that they never even reached the Sweet 16.

Wisconsin players are aware of what is at stake as the team prepares to open the NCAA tournament against No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina at 8:20 p.m. CT Friday in Omaha, Neb. But in nearly every way, players say they are a better team this year compared to last year.

"I just think we’re a year older, a year wiser," said Badgers center Frank Kaminsky, who has developed into the front-runner for national player of the year. "We know what to expect this year. We know how we have to go about our business. I think everyone’s just better. From a skill standpoint, from a defensive standpoint, I think we’re just clicking right now. And hopefully that’ll mean a long run for us."

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Badgers guard Josh Gasser and forward Sam Dekker each said there were plenty of similarities between the two Wisconsin teams, with most of last year’s core having returned other than graduated senior Ben Brust. But this year’s bunch has a knowledge base and experience level that is higher than a year ago, they said, and the team has spent an entire season wholly prepared to be the target of every opponent as a national championship contender.

"You’ve seen this year we haven’t really been afraid of the spotlight, haven’t been afraid of big venues," Dekker said. "We just go and play basketball. I think having our experiences last year is a main key for that, and I think that’s going to help us for the next three weeks."

The most glaring difference is the departure of a consistent long-range shooter like Brust. Last season, Brust made a school record 96 3-pointers, hit on 39.3 percent of his attempts and was excellent at pulling defenses even further outside the arc. That team shot 37.6 percent from 3, while this year’s team shoots 35.7 percent. Last year, Wisconsin also averaged 73.5 points — a record in the Ryan era — while the current version averages 71.9 points.

But statistics also indicate how much better this year’s team truly is overall. Wisconsin is far superior defensively, allowing nearly eight fewer points per game — from 64.0 to 56.1. And offensively, the Badgers are more efficient at scoring inside, hitting 55.1 percent of 2-point field goals compared to 51.3 percent a year ago. UW also is more consistent at free throw shooting and has a better assists-to-turnovers ratio (1.71, up from 1.52 last season).

Kaminsky and Dekker — two future first-round NBA draft picks — are key reasons the team hasn’t slowed down. But the improved play of forward Nigel Hayes and point guard Bronson Koenig, both of whom have stepped into starting roles, is perhaps even more significant.

Hayes became the team’s fifth starter to replace Brust, and Koenig took over for point guard Traevon Jackson after he broke his right foot Jan. 11 against Rutgers. Hayes, who didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer last season, now leads the rotation players in 3-point percentage (.403). Koenig, meanwhile, has an assists-to-turnovers ratio of 2.89.

"We know we’re missing a great player in Ben," Hayes said. "But I think the way Bronson has improved, the guys we have coming off the bench and the overall team improvement, I think we’ve been able to fill that void."

If there is another difference between the two Wisconsin teams at this very stage, this year’s Badgers also have momentum on their side. UW has won six consecutive games entering the NCAA tournament, including three in three days to win the Big Ten tournament. Last year, Wisconsin earned a No. 2 NCAA tournament seed and ultimately finished 30-8 overall but lost two of its final three games before the Big Dance.

"We’re feeling good about ourselves, that’s for sure," Gasser said. "Last year coming into the NCAA tournament, we had lost our last (regular season) game to Nebraska, and then we lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament (semifinals). So I wouldn’t necessarily say we were playing our best basketball at this time last year. But we still found ways to win some games. …

"It’s a new season. So whatever happened last year leading up to this point and whatever happened this year doesn’t really matter. We’re good, and I’m confident with the way we’re playing."

This year we’re going in saying, ‘All right, guys, we’ve done this before and we know that we can do it. Let’s buckle down and take care of business.’

Nigel Hayes

Ryan has reached the NCAA tournament at Wisconsin for a 14th consecutive season. And in each of the previous 13 trips, his year has ended with a loss. But at what stage a team loses goes a long way toward determining how it is viewed through the lens of history.

Ryan described the fickle nature of the NCAA tournament by citing last year’s Duke team, a highly experienced group that earned a No. 3 seed and promptly lost to No. 14 seed Mercer in the opening round.

"They run into a buzzsaw, a team that can’t miss," Ryan said. "And you can go on every year and you can point to things that happen."

Wisconsin hopes to avoid a similar fate as it makes its case to be remembered as not only better than last year’s Final Four team but the best in school history.

"We know that last year we were going in there and we were saying, ‘Guys, we can do this, we have the potential to do it,’" Hayes said. "And this year we’re going in saying, ‘All right, guys, we’ve done this before and we know that we can do it. Let’s buckle down and take care of business.’"

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