Every time the Wisconsin Badgers lose a key player to graduation or the NBA draft they seem to fly under the radar and then exceed expectations.
When former Big Ten Player of the Year Devin Harris went pro in 2004, a team that experts thought would have a "down year" made it all the way to the Elite Eight in 2005.
After 2007 Big Ten Player of the Year Alando Tucker left, expectations again fell, but Bo Ryan led a relatively inexperienced team to the Sweet 16 last season.
This year, with the departure of 2008 consensus All Big Ten First Teamer Brian Butch, the Badgers look to again surprise pundits who think they're the third or fourth best team in their conference.
With the return of such experienced players as senior forward Marcus Landy (pictured), scrappy senior forward Joe Krabbenhoft, and playmaking junior point guard Trevon Hughes, Badger basketball will be in good hands in 2009.
That being said, in order to win another Big Ten title and advance deeper into the NCAA tournament, they must find a go-to guy. Though Hughes showed flashes of go-to guy abilitiy, I would argue that the guy that must step his game up in '09 is Landry.
After Tucker left, many thought the 6'8" power forward would develop into a consistent post threat and fill the void last year. But after averaging a solid but unspectacular 10.8 points and 5.4 boards, it's now or never for the senior from Milwaukee. He has the skills and athleticism to do it.
Other key players looking to make solid contributions include junior sharpshooter Jason Bohannon, sophomore forwards Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil, and last year's Minnesota Mr. Basketball Jordan Taylor. This freshman guard plays like a veteran and, along with another Minnesota freshman, forward Jared Berrgren, should contribute immediately to an already deep Badger squad.
If there's one thing Bo knows it's winning, and look for the 2008-09 season to be no different. Though they may have lost their star player in Butch, the Badgers are used to retooling in a hurry and turning heads come March.
As far as the road to March, here's a look at the top ten Badger games to watch for this season in chronological order.
1. @ Virginia Tech (Mon, Dec 1)
With the Big Ten a paltry 30-56 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge since it's induction in 1999 and the Hokies looking to return to the NCAA tourney this year, this will without question be a competitive game. Look for do-it-all senior guar A.D. Vassallo to be the Badgers' biggest obstacle to victory here.
2. @ Marquette (Sat, Dec 6)
The Golden Eagles' "big three" of Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews, and Dominic James has enough talent and experience to take down anyone. Look for Landry & Krabbenhoft to show their senior leadership and have big games for the Badgers vs. Marquette's thin front line.
3. vs Texas (Tue, Dec 23)
Anyone remember Michael Flowers' 3-pointer/steal combo to beat the Longhorns last year? While the Badgers no longer have Flowers, the Longhorns no longer have D.J. Augustin either. They do have A.J. Abrams and a host of other talented players, however.
4. @ Purdue (Sun, Jan 11)
Their first true test of the Big Ten season takes them to West Lafayette where the young but ultra-tough Boilermakers, led by junior Chris Kramer & sophomore Robbie Hummel, look to win their third straight vs. the Badgers.
5. vs Minnesoata (Thu, Jan 15)
Though the Gophers may not be a contender to win the Big Ten yet, the Badgers should guard against a possible upset here. Trevon Hughes must win the point guard matchup with defensive-minded Gopher Al Nolen to ensure a Badger win.
6. vs Purdue (Tue, Jan 27)
Purdue is fast becoming the Badgers' next rival. Again look for Wisconsin's senior starters to be the difference in this one.
7. vs Ohio St. (Sat, Feb 14)
No love lost between these two teams either. 7-foot freshman center B.J. Mullens will be a lot to handle for Landry & Krabbenhoft, but they have the experience & savvy to contain the Ohio native with tremendous upside.
8. @ Indiana (Thu, Feb 19)
Should be a huge game for the Badgers in terms of standings. Much like with Purdue, they struggle to beat this team on the road year in & year out. Tom Crean will have his team ready for a much more experienced Badger squad.
9. @ Michigan St. (Sun, Feb 22)
Bo Ryan may be 9-3 vs. Tom Izzo, but they've split the last six meetings (3-3). In the past it seemed the Spartans could only beat the Badgers if Drew Neitzel went off. With Neitzel no longer there, this will still be a classic MSU-Wisconsin slugfest. Expect the final score to be in the late 50's/early 60's and for Izzo & Ryan to still thoroughly dislike each other.
10. @ Minnesota (Tue, Mar 3)
Another building in which the Badgers typically struggle. Expect another tough, physical game here as well as a chess match between two of the game's better coaches in Ryan and Tubby Smith.