Many believe that college basketball truly begins once conference play rolls around, but Wisconsin basketball can't afford to have that mindset entering the 2013-14 season.
The nonconference slate features several challenges, including the season opener on Nov. 8 against St. John's. From there, the Badgers must also clash with Florida, Saint Louis, Marquette and Virginia before reaching the gauntlet that is the Big Ten schedule.
Losing three starting forwards from a season ago, No. 20 Wisconsin will need some players to grow up fast in order to avoid digging itself an early hole, but there is still plenty of experience on this roster.
In case anyone needed a reminder, the Badgers have never finished below fourth place in the B1G under the tutelage of Bo Ryan, nor missed out on the NCAA Tournament. They are one of four Big Ten teams to crack the preseason AP Top 25 poll, and they figure to be in the mix for the conference title once again despite the presence of Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State among others.
There's been some turnover in Madison, but expectations remain high. To get you all geared up for Wisconsin basketball, we'll take a look up and down the roster and predict what exactly to expect from the Badgers this season.
Nigel Hayes (15.4 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.2 BPG)
The Badgers brought in six true freshmen during the offseason in an effort to help replace Mike Bruesewitz, Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans. While some of those freshmen can expect to redshirt due to Wisconsin's crowded backcourt, depth at forward remains a concern, and that's where Nigel Hayes steps in.
Hayes, a 6'7", 230-pound forward out of Whitmer High School in Ohio, was the No. 2 recruit of the 2013 class for Wisconsin according to 247sports. But he has to be considered the most valuable—the Badgers are only returning two forwards with notable experience, and both will be starting this season.
In Wisconsin's preseason matchup against UW-Platteville, Hayes received 14 minutes of playing time, the most of anyone that came off the bench. The freshman tallied 8 points and a team-high 6 rebounds, and he can expect to be one of the four forwards in Bo Ryan's rotation.
The Badgers lack a true rebounding forward on the starting five, so expect Hayes' minutes to progressively increase this season. He gives Wisconsin a body that can bang down low, and he will be one of the top freshmen to keep an eye on in the Big Ten this season.
Bronson Koenig (17.0 PPG, 4.4 APG, 45.5 3PT FG%)
When you're the top recruit of the 2013 class, the expectations placed on you are naturally higher than that of any other freshman on the roster. That's what Bronson Koenig will have to deal with this season, although he will have to scrap and claw for extended minutes in Ryan's strict rotation.
The leash is short under Bo Ryan when you're a freshman, but Koenig will benefit from the Badgers' three-guard lineup, an unconventional tactic for Wisconsin teams. The Badgers don't have much of a choice, however, and Koenig can figure to be one of the two guards to see playing time off the bench.
Koenig, like Hayes, also saw 14 minutes in the preseason game, but didn't have nearly the same impact. His defense needs to come along a bit, but Koenig has great vision, athleticism and the look of a college player despite just joining the scene.
The Badgers shouldn't lose anything on the floor when Koenig enters to spell a starter, and he can expect to eventually grow into something special at Wisconsin as his college career comes along.
*Stats from senior season in high school
Sam Dekker (9.6 PPG, 47.8 FG%)
It's not often a sophomore is expected to be the best player on Wisconsin, but then again, Sam Dekker was the best player on Wisconsin as a freshman, so it's a no-brainer that he is the most important returning player for the Badgers.
Dekker was the sixth man as a freshman on a team heavily experienced at forward. The only problem was that Wisconsin was offensively challenged at forward aside from Dekker, which is part of the reason why he watched his minutes balloon late in the season.
As a frosh, Dekker averaged 9.6 points per game and led the team in shooting percentage. Now, he's one of just two returning forwards that played more than 4.7 minutes per game during the 2012-13 season. Don't be surprised to watch Dekker make a push for Big Ten Player of the Year, as he is the No. 6 small forward in college basketball, according to C.J. Moore of Bleacher Report.
Ben Brust (11.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 38.9 3PT FG%)
It feels like senior guard Ben Brust has been around forever, but he still has one more year to make his mark at Wisconsin, specifically from beyond the three-point arc.
Brust set Wisconsin's single-season record for three-point baskets made (79) last season, but he also emerged as a viable rebounding guard, recording five double-doubles. Of course, Brust will also go down in Wisconsin lore for draining perhaps the most improbable shot of the 2012-13 season.
He'll start once again this season and give the Badgers a viable scoring option, but it will be interesting to see if Brust has expanded his game beyond being just a three-point specialist.
Frank Kaminsky (4.2 PPG, 43.9 FG%)
As a sophomore, Wisconsin big man Frank Kaminsky only averaged 10.3 minutes off the bench, but he will join the starting lineup this season at forward alongside Dekker.
Listed at 7'0", Kaminsky has the ability to knock down the outside shot, but where the Badgers really need him is down by the basket, giving them an offensive threat in the post and someone to match up with the opponent's low-post threat.
Kaminsky has shown flashes in his first two seasons with the Badgers. But now is the time for him to put it all together, because beyond Kaminsky and Dekker, we aren't sure what to expect at the forward position.
|Ben Brust (6'1" SR)||Sam Dekker (6'7" SO)|
|Josh Gasser (6'3" JR)||Frank Kaminsky (7'0" JR)|
|Traevon Jackson (6'2" JR)||Duje Dukan (6'9" JR)|
|George Marshall (5'11" SO)||Nigel Hayes (6'7" FR)|
|Bronson Koenig (6'3" FR)||Vitto Brown (6'8" FR)|
|Riley Dearring (6'5" FR)||Zach Bohannon (6'6" SR)|
|Jordan Hill (6'3" FR)||Evan Anderson (6'10" JR)|
|Zak Showalter (6'2" SO)*||Aaron Moesch (6'8" FR)|
|Jordan Smith (6'1" JR)*|
*Redshirt in 2013-14
Bold = Returning starter
|G — Ben Brust||G — George Marshall|
|G — Traevon Jackson||G — Bronson Koenig|
|G — Josh Gasser|
|F — Sam Dekker||F — Duje Dukan|
|F — Frank Kaminsky||F — Nigel Hayes|
Josh Gasser (7.6 PPG, 45.2 3PT FG%)
Why doesn't losing three starters sound as bad as it should for the Badgers? Because Josh Gasser will make his return after missing the entire 2012-13 season with a torn ACL.
Gasser started during his first two seasons at guard alongside Jordan Taylor and was being primed to take over the starting point guard role upon Taylor's departure. But just days before the start of his junior season, Gasser suffered a season-ending knee injury during practice, leaving the Badgers extremely inexperienced at guard.
Fortunately, Gasser was able to use a redshirt, so he wasn't forced to burn a year of eligibility. Also, players like Traevon Jackson and George Marshall were able to gain experience they otherwise wouldn't have obtained.
Gasser was a 2012 Big Ten All-Defensive Team selection, and he is a full go coming into the 2013-14 season. While he will be used more as a wing rather than at point guard, Gasser is someone that can create and handle the rock, two assets Wisconsin will gladly welcome along with his leadership.
Duje Dukan (0.7 PPG, 57.1 FG%)
Last season was one to forget for Duje Dukan, mainly because it never even happened.
Ready to take the next step in his college basketball career, Dukan suffered from mononucleosis in the fall of 2012, forcing him to take a redshirt. Now almost a forgotten man, Dukan is ready to remind people why he was selected first-team all-state by the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association back in 2010.
Dukan benefits from the lack of depth at forward following the loss of three starters at the position, and while he has only played in 21 games at the collegiate level, he's healthy and ready to join Bo Ryan's rotation.
At 6'8", his shooting prowess from outside will make him difficult to guard—he showed off his three-point range by going 2-of-3 against UW-Platteville. He'll spell Sam Dekker off the bench, and perhaps he will begin to show why he's deserving of this role and force Ryan to consider returning to a three-forward lineup.
The Badgers, once again, overachieve and exceed expectations, and they will challenge for the Big Ten regular season title.
Sam Dekker enters the conversation as one of the best small forwards in all of college basketball while contending for the Big Ten Player of the Year Award. Josh Gasser picks up where he left off two seasons ago, freshmen Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes live up to the hype and Frank Kaminsky plays like a 7-footer.
Traevon Jackson (shooting) and George Marshall (penetration) develop a better overall game, Ben Brust remains a sniper from three-point range and Duje Dukan becomes the biggest X-factor on the roster.
Even if Wisconsin falls just short of winning the B1G, a deep conference tournament run sets it up with a top-three seed in the NCAA Tournament, where the Badgers return to the Final Four for the first time since 2000 and the first time under Bo Ryan.
In 12 years, Wisconsin has never finished lower than at least a tie for fourth place in the Big Ten. To use that as a benchmark, the Badgers wind up finishing tied for fourth in the conference while dealing with growing pains and inexperienced players struggling in extended roles.
The challenging nonconference schedule eats up Wisconsin, as it takes a while for the team to gel. Dekker fails to live up to the lofty expectations, and the contributing freshmen fail to earn the trust of Bo Ryan.
Gasser is tentative coming off his ACL injury and isn't the same player he once was. Jackson, Marshall and Kaminsky don't take the next step, and the lack of an all-around skill set limits Brust's impact on the game.
An early exit from the Big Ten conference tournament halts any momentum the Badgers may have built up at the end of the season. Combined with the lack of compelling non-conference victories, the result is a No. 5-7 seed and a second-round exit (Round of 64) in the NCAA Tournament.
It's a true testament to Bo Ryan and his staff that the Badgers enter the 2013-14 college basketball season in the Top 25. They lost three starters but will regain one in Josh Gasser and rely on at least two true freshmen to be role players off the bench.
Last season, Wisconsin's first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament was disappointing, but certainly not a shock. The Badgers suffered from lengthy scoring droughts throughout the season, and that was exactly what did them in against Ole Miss in the Big Dance.
Aside from the ACC, there is no conference more talented and deeper than the Big Ten. But a conference title isn't impossible, and teams like Indiana and Minnesota have entered rebuilding mode.
While the Badgers are garnering a little more respect than usual this season thanks in large part to a guy named Sam Dekker—many pundits have Wisconsin as the No. 4 team in the B1G—the top two spots are nearly barricaded shut by the two Michigan schools. Ohio State also remains a tough team to surpass.
Last season, Wisconsin was the best defensive team in the conference, allowing .91 points per possession. That will be hard to replicate after losing plus defenders in Bruesewitz, Evans and Berggren, but what the Badgers are losing in defense, they are gaining in offense with Dekker's increased role and the return of Gasser, who also happens to be one of the best defensive guards in the B1G.
With a three-guard lineup, look for Wisconsin to push the ball and be a little more up-tempo. Of course, the half-court, swing offense will be the norm, and we can still expect the Badgers to be one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
The Badgers will be able to get past the Buckeyes, but that's it—they are destined for a third-place finish in the conference. They will make a run to the semifinals in the Big Ten tournament before being ousted by either the Wolverines or Spartans, and earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
From there, it's anyone's guess. The fact of the matter is that Wisconsin has the ability to play with anyone in the country—it's just a matter if it can avoid the scoring droughts and rely on someone other than Dekker to put points on the board when the Badgers need them most.
A 3-4 seed will pave the way for a Sweet 16 appearance, but that's where it ends for a Wisconsin squad that lacks forward depth, experience and a legitimate presence down low.
Regular season: 24-8 (13-5), 3rd in Big Ten
NCAA Tournament: No. 3 seed, Sweet 16