Top 5 Issues Wisconsin Basketball Needs to Address Before the 2014-15 Season
Coming off inarguably one of the most successful seasons in Wisconsin basketball history, the Badgers look to build off last year's Final Four run in the 2014-15 season. With seven of the eight rotation players returning, the Badgers have plenty to look forward to this upcoming season. Yet despite their strong cast of returning characters, the Badgers still have a number of issues they need to address.
While all five Badgers starters last year could shoot, the team loses career three-point field goal leader Ben Brust with no replacement in terms of a dead-eye sharpshooter in sight. Furthermore, the team needs to figure out who the fifth starter will be, among many more questions.
Without further ado, here are the top five issues the Wisconsin basketball team needs to address before the start of the 2014-15 season.
While not big enough issues to warrant great concern, here are a few things Badgers fans will want to keep a look-out for:
Will Traevon Jackson show more consistency? As a converted shooting guard, Jackson has been excellent at times running the point for the Badgers. Since taking the reins at the point as a sophomore in the wake of Josh Gasser's knee tears, Jackson has been very good at times and has also shown a proclivity toward trying to do too much.
Jackson averaged 10.7 points and 4.0 assists per game last season while even finding a three-point stroke (he shot 38.2 percent from three, up from 29.3 percent his sophomore year). If Jackson can cut down on the number of forced shots and pressure-cooker mistakes he's made over the past two seasons, the Badgers will find themselves in a position to win the Big Ten and reach the Final Four again.
Will Josh Gasser's knee improve? Since joining the team at the start of the 2010-11 season, Josh Gasser has played every game he's been active for (108), making him one of the rare freshmen to earn coach Bo Ryan's trust from Day 1. He's shown a willingness to chip in wherever needed and doesn't need to score to make an impact on the game.
With that being said, coming into his junior year Gasser tore his ACL and MCL, which forced him to take a redshirt. Gasser was immensely important to the team last season but his knee was still not 100 percent. While it may never be 100 percent again, the healthier he is, the better the team will be as he can guard the opponent's best offensive player and hit timely shots.
Here are five other issues the Badgers need to address before the season starts.
5. Who Will Crack the Rotation?
Head Coach Bo Ryan does not play a particularly deep bench, yet has a willingness to pull a player at any time for a turnover or not boxing out. Ryan typically plays an eight-man rotation and with seven players returning from the rotation last year, that leaves a dearth of spots for additional players.
Three players that will be fighting for the eighth spot include Zak Showalter, Jordan Hill and Vitto Brown.
Showalter, who walked on for the team after receiving no ranking from ESPN out of high school, likely has the best chance of seeing minutes, at least early in the season. As a freshman, Showalter played in 22 games, averaging 6.7 minutes, 1.7 points and 1.0 rebounds per game.
While his numbers dipped drastically in Big Ten play, scoring just a single point while seeing the floor in just 10 conference games, his experience will make him an attractive candidate to play the No. 4 guard role on the depth chart.
Jordan Hill is an interesting case, as well. Hill played sparingly as a freshman, logging only 25 minutes the whole year and hitting one field goal. That shot was a three against rival Minnesota with the game well in hand, one that sparked the ire of Richard Pitino.
But running the scout team as point guard with a Josh Gasser-like quality of doing whatever it takes to help the team win, Hill has the potential to thrive in Ryan's next-man-up system. With that being said, by virtue of not using it last year, Hill could also be a candidate to redshirt, something Showalter did last season.
Among the forwards, Vitto Brown is a big body who has shown a willingness to rebound, and that alone makes him a candidate to see the floor. Beyond Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes has not established himself as a great rebounder, Sam Dekker still needs to add bulk to his frame and Duje Dukan is a shooting guard trapped in a 6-8 body.
In steps Brown, whose smooth voice and 237-pound frame have made him a hit for both coaches and fans alike. While he was used sparingly last season, Ryan trusted him enough to play him in three of the Badgers' five NCAA Tournament game, including the the Final Four bout against Kentucky. Brown probably needs another year of development, but don't be surprised to see him spell Kaminsky at times.
Brown will be an important big man who can help out and play the Evan Anderson role of picking up fouls if need be, and can grow into a real contributor.
Of this group, my guess is that Showalter will play more toward the beginning of the year before Hill steps into the role of an extra guard later in the season.
4. Will Ethan Happ Contribute as a Freshman?
When a team gives out one scholarship, as a fan, you have to hope that one kid can come in and contribute. At face value, Ethan Happ may not seem like that guy, but any fan of Wisconsin basketball will tell you that it's players like Happ that make the wheels turn in Madison.
Happ, a 3-star recruit according to ESPN, is a consummate Bo Ryan big-man. He's 6'8" and, according to his scouting report on ESPN, "knocks down open shots with range to the arc and will be excellent in pick and pop and spacing to the open area on the side of dribble penetration."
Happ is likely better than advertised, as he averaged 33.0 points and 15.0 rebounds per game as a senior at Rockridge (Ill.) High School, where the team went 28-1. Furthermore, he also led Team USA to the championship game of the 16-nation Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Germany while taking home MVP honors.
Happ has a very high ceiling, but this year it may be tough for him to find the floor with so many returning big men. With that being said, Happ acknowledges the struggles ahead, per Jesse Temple of Fox Sports Wisconsin:
"I'm not going to go in saying that I'm going to earn minutes or I'm not going to get any minutes. I'm just going to keep working hard at it and whatever coaches feel is best, that's what they're going to do."
With the right mindset and a budding skill set that fits the culture of the program, Happ certainly has the tools to be a contributor for the Badgers, even if it isn't this season.
3. Will Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig Fall into Sophomore Slumps?
When Traevon Jackson picked up his second foul of the game with 11:53 to play in the first half against Kentucky in the Final Four, Badgers fans collectively held their breath as a freshman point guard, playing with one foul himself, was pressed into duty against the Wildcats.
But Bronson Koenig proved himself more than worthy of the task, scoring 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting, including a nifty layup past Dakari Johnson—seen above—and a clutch three-pointer.
Throughout the season, Koenig was hot and cold with his shot, scoring 14 against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament on 5-of-5 shooting—including 4-of-4 from deep—then going 0-of-3 against Michigan State the next day. Koenig showed some growing pains and made some freshman mistakes, but also showed flashes of why he was so highly touted coming in last season.
If people didn't know who Nigel Hayes was coming into the season, they certainly knew who he was by the end of it. Hayes, a 4-star ESPN Top-100 player out of Toledo, Ohio, made his presence felt early on.
Though he didn't score double figures until mid-December, Hayes would go on to reach them nine times in Big Ten play, bringing home Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year honors.
While both players were very strong and showed a lot of promise, they each have things to work on heading into their sophomore seasons.
For Koenig, he needs to work on his on-ball defense and shot selection. While most of the shots he took were open, to slide into the role of starting point guard, he needs to find his place within the offense. Though there is a time and a place for the Jordan Taylor "it's my time to shoot" mentality, Koenig needs to learn when to turn it on and when to turn it off.
For Hayes, he needs to rebound the ball better, play defense in the post without fouling and hit his free throws. For someone who clocks in at 6'7", 250, you would hope for more than 2.8 rebounds per game. Furthermore, he averaged 2.7 fouls per game, running him into trouble numerous times throughout the season, including in the Final Four.
Last but not least, Hayes' free throw shooting needs to improve. Hayes took the second most free throws on the team, yet made the fourth most, hitting them at a 58.5 percent clip. For someone who goes to the line as much as he does, improvements need to be made in that regard.
2. Who Will Be the 5th Starter?
Coach Bo Ryan likes to stick with his starting lineup, using the same five to open all 38 games last season. In his book consistency breeds success, so when the five names are called on opening day, look for those five to stick throughout the course of the season.
With Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky returning, look for all four to keep their spots in the starting lineup. The fifth spot gets a little more interesting as Ryan can go two routes.
Typically preferring a three guard, two forward look, Ryan could replace graduating senior Ben Brust with Bronson Koenig. The freshman shot 32.8 percent from three but looked more confident as the season wore on, and could be a nice fit at the 2.
Koenig could also play the point, his natural position, moving Jackson to his natural position at shooting guard while keeping last year's configuration of Gasser at the 3, Dekker at the 4 and Kaminsky at the 5.
The other route Ryan could go is to have Nigel Hayes start, giving him a more traditional two guard, three forward look. With Jackson running the 1, Gasser would slide down to the 2 where he played alongside Jordan Taylor his first two seasons.
In the frontcourt, Dekker moves down to the 3 where instead of being a liability defensively, he then will have the upper hand in most cases. Hayes would play the 4 in this scenario while Kaminsky would play the 5.
The first scenario presents a problem if Jackson or Koenig get into foul trouble, though it can be easily alleviated. If Jackson, running the 1, picks up his second foul in the first half, Koenig could slide down to the 1, anyone from Showalter, Hill or Gasser could play the 2, while Ryan could mix-and-match in the frontcourt.
The second scenario presents a greater a challenge. If Kaminsky were to get in foul trouble, there is no real backup as the team lacks a second center. While that remains a problem if Hayes is the sixth man, it would limit his exposure early on, allowing him to take on the bigger assignment without the additional burden of early fouls.
Furthermore, Ryan like to limit the time Hayes and Kaminsky play together, as Hayes' presence forces Kaminsky out around the perimeter, or vice versa. While Hayes has good range from inside the arc and Kaminsky from outside, both are significantly more lethal around the basket.
Only time will tell which route Ryan chooses to go, but by the time the Badgers get into the teeth of their non-conference schedule, barring injury, expect that lineup to stick.
1. Can Sam Dekker Become a Star?
Top-100 players don't come to Wisconsin very often. When it comes to 5-star players, forget about it, not in Madison. With that being said, when Sam Dekker signed his letter of intent to come play with the Badgers, expectations shot through the roof. Dekker, a 5-star player according to ESPN, was very good as a freshman.
Freshman don't play much in Bo Ryan's system, yet Dekker confidently played more than 22 minutes per game, racking up 9.6 points and 3.4 rebounds. Heading into his sophomore season, Dekker was talked about as a potential lottery pick and the bona fide star the team needed when the shot clock wore thin and the team needed a bucket.
While Dekker put together a good season—12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game—he didn't make the jump into filling the Alando Tucker role of scoring when the team needed points or grabbing a rebound when the team needed a rebound.
Dekker, who came into the program as a highly touted marksman, actually saw his three-point percentage slip from 39.1 percent as a freshman to 32.6 percent as a sophomore. Furthermore, Dekker also did not improve from the free throw line, where he shot 68.6 percent.
If Dekker can improve on the defensive end, find some consistency with his shot and become more assertive on the offensive end—as he was in stretches against Kentucky when he scored 15 points on 3-of-4 shooting including 8-8 from the charity stripe—a Big Ten title and a trip to Indianapolis are well within the Badgers' reach.