Badgers will be challenged in retooling roster for 2015-16

In 2014-15, Nigel Hayes ranked third on Wisconsin's team in scoring (12.4 points per game) and second in rebounds (6.2). Thus, he'll be counted on heavily in Madison next season, after Wisconsin loses no less than four stars off this season's accomplished club.

Nati Harnik/Nati Harnik/Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — During a quiet moment of reflection in the losing locker room Monday night, Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser assessed the team’s future as he struggled to accept the present. UW had just lost to Duke, 68-63, in the national championship game, representing the final college game of his career. Still, he expressed optimism for what the program could achieve down the road.

"I hope Wisconsin basketball can keep this going," Gasser said. "The attitude, the culture has got to be accepting nothing less than Big Ten championships, national championships, competing for them. I think we set that. It’s been an unbelievable program since coach (Bo) Ryan got here. He’s done a great job. I hope he takes it to the next level and they can continue this."

Wisconsin put the finishing touches on a remarkable two-year run that featured the school’s first back-to-back Final Four appearances in history and a combined record of 66-12. The Badgers also nearly won their first national title in 74 years before falling short in the final minutes against the Blue Devils.

But continuing the same level of success could prove to be particularly difficult next season because of the departure of such immense talent and experience. Wisconsin will lose four seniors off this year’s team — Gasser, Traevon Jackson, Frank Kaminsky and Duje Dukan. Junior Sam Dekker, meanwhile, is almost assuredly gone to the NBA given the largely sparkling performance he put together in the NCAA tournament, where he averaged 19.1 points and 5.5 rebounds over six games to solidify his status as a first-round draft choice and potential lottery pick.

That five-man group combined for 65.6 percent of the team’s points this season, 60.6 percent of the rebounds and 59.5 percent of the assists. It also accounted for 62.8 percent of Wisconsin’s made 3-pointers. Gasser was the program’s all-time leader in starts and minutes played, Kaminsky developed into the national player of the year, Jackson was a three-year starting point guard and Dukan was a proven long-range threat.

Dekker’s return would undoubtedly boost Wisconsin back into the upper echelon of college basketball next season. But it seems unlikely he would stay, though he remained noncommittal when asked Monday night about his future. NBADraft.net lists him as the ninth overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, while DraftExpress.com has him going 15th — positions that, if true, would make it nearly impossible for him to return for his senior season.

"I’ve got to weigh my options and make a committed decision and go from there," Dekker said.

What factors would play into his decision?

"I don’t know," he said. "Just got to take what’s best for my future. Both options are going to be there obviously. Been there all along. You never know. You’ve got to wake up tomorrow and get home with these guys and then we’ll go from there and see what the future holds, and we’ll go from there."

One player who guaranteed he would be back was sophomore forward Nigel Hayes, who tallied 13 points and one rebound against Duke.

National title game photos

"You watched that game," Hayes told reporters afterward. "I’m nowhere near good enough to do anything but come back."

Hayes and point guard Bronson Koenig will form the backbone of next year’s team. This season, Hayes emerged as one of Wisconsin’s most reliable players in his first year as a starter. He ranked third on the team in scoring (12.4 points per game) and second in rebounds (6.2). Koenig took over as the starter when Jackson sustained a broken right foot on Jan. 11, and he shined in that role. He finished the season averaging 8.7 points and had a nearly 3-to-1 assists-to-turnovers ratio (98-to-33).

Koenig noted the team’s seniors would be irreplaceable.

"But every team goes through that," he said, "and we’ll be ready to go next year."

The rest of the rotation will have to show it can play at a high enough level to keep Wisconsin near the top of the Big Ten. The only other returnees who saw any significant playing time were guard Zak Showalter and forward Vitto Brown. Showalter appeared in 35 of 40 games and averaged 2.1 points and 1.3 rebounds in 7.6 minutes per game. Brown played in 36 games with averages of 1.8 points, 1.3 rebounds and 6.3 minutes.

Two scout team players that figure to play an important role among the regular rotation are point guard Jordan Hill and forward Ethan Happ, who, at 6-foot-9, will be the tallest frontcourt player in the group. But that brings next year’s rotation to only six players, which means Ryan will have his work cut out for him in finding at least two more rotation players.

UW is bringing in an impressive freshman class, and minutes should be available. The class features 6-3 guard Brevin Pritzl (De Pere, Wis.), 6-5 forward Khalil Iverson (Delaware, Ohio), 6-7 forward Charlie Thomas (Clarksville, Md.) and 6-9 forward Alex Illikainen (Grand Rapids, Minn.). Whether any of those players is good enough to start remains to be seen. Only four true freshmen have ever started a game under Ryan since he arrived at Wisconsin in 2001, and Dekker was the last to achieve that feat.

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Most national college basketball pundits predict Wisconsin will once again be among the top 25 teams in the nation, though next season will not arrive with the same type of lofty goals this year brought. TheBigLead.com ranks Wisconsin No. 15 in its early preseason top 25, while CBSSports.com has UW at 17. NBCSports.com (19), Bleacher Report (22) and USA Today (24) also put the Badgers in the top 25.

Those rankings are largely based on Ryan’s track record of keeping Wisconsin relevant each season, but the Badgers will surely have plenty to prove with a relatively new supporting cast.

Monday night, Hayes conveyed confidence Wisconsin could still be an excellent team next year.

"Coach Ryan and the coaching staff does a great job," Hayes said. "Last year we weren’t supposed to be where we were. This year, guys said we’re good but there was no way we were coming back and yet here we are. Guys are leaving, guys are coming in. The type of program that we have, guys will work hard. Guys will get better. I have no doubt we’ll be able to be as good as we were this year, maybe even better."

Hayes figures to be the leader of that team — a responsibility he’ll have no choice but to embrace.

"I’m just ready to get better," he said.

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