Coaches as consistently brilliant as Bo Ryan typically don't spend 13 seasons searching for a breakthrough, but Wisconsin's run to the Final Four last season made it worth the wait. The Badgers finally made it past the Sweet 16 by blitzing Baylor and then won an overtime classic against a loaded Arizona team in the Elite 8. Wisconsin would eventually fall victim to Kentucky in Dallas on Aaron Harrison's third straight game-winning shot, but not before Ryan's team left the impression that his brand of careful, deliberate basketball could succeed against any program in the country.
When Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker decided to forgo the NBA draft for another year in Madison, the Badgers immediately became one of the best teams in the country once again. Now Wisconsin is tasked with living up to the high expectations that come with returning a team that was so talented and successful a year ago. All of the pieces for another deep tournament run appear to be in place, and anything less will ultimately be considered a disappointment.
Wisconsin returns four starters from a team that finished No. 4 in KenPom's offensive efficiency rankings a year ago and will welcome the Big Ten's reigning Sixth Man of the Year into the starting lineup as a sophomore. The Badgers have size, experience, rebounding and depth. Another deep year for the Big Ten and a tough nonconference slate that includes an early December game against Duke should prepare the Badgers well for their ultimate test in March.
If it feels like there's an added amount of pressure on Wisconsin this year, it's only because those around the program know players as good as Dekker and Kaminsky don't come around often. Each would have been borderline first-round picks in the NBA draft last year. If Dekker takes the leap everyone expects this season, it's likely that Ryan will be replacing four starters a year from now. Until that happens, though, Wisconsin gets to take one more big swing at a national championship with a team that's good enough to get the job done.
Kaminsky's decision to return gives Wisconsin something no other contender can boast: a 7-footer with range that extends past the three-point line and enough size to handle his own defensively against most college big men. Kaminsky isn't the rim protector Willie Cauley-Stein is, but he's done well to add strength every year to battle against the physical front court players in the Big Ten. He became a star last year by dropping in 28 points against Arizona to push the Badgers into the Final Four. As a senior, he's making everyone's preseason All-American team and will be a top candidate for the Wooden Award.
If Kaminsky's presence makes the Badgers a safe bet to be the best team in the conference, it's the return of Dekker that gives them a chance to be among the best teams in the country. Dekker said he felt growing pains this summer at Big Ten media day, and the Badgers are banking on the fact that his game will grow with his new body. Dekker shot up two inches to 6'9 over the offseason and wowed anyone who watched him at LeBron James' summer camp in Las Vegas. His ability to put the ball on the floor, pass and hit jump shots at that size will make him a terrifying weapon for Ryan. If he can get his three-point percentage closer to where it was his freshman year (39.1 percent) than his sophomore year (32.6 percent), Wisconsin's inside-outside game will make opponents miserable.
Ryan's teams have always prided themselves on Playing The Right Way, but a more assertive Dekker wouldn't be a bad thing this season. With at least six players capable of scoring in double-figures every single night, though, a team-oriented approach will make the Badgers extremely difficult to matchup with until they start seeing the other top team teams in the country late in the tournament.
Ryan helped lift Wisconsin to new heights last year and knows this is his best chance yet at a national title. Wisconsin has never recruited like Arizona or Kentucky, so an opportunity like this one isn't coming every year. Can the Badgers make the most of it? March basketball is completely unknowable, but with so much experience and talent, Wisconsin has to like its odds.
Projected starting lineup
PG Traevon Jackson, senior
SG Josh Gasser, senior
SF Sam Dekker, junior
PF Nigel Hayes, sophomore
C Frank Kaminsky, senior
Key reserves: G Bronson Koenig (sophomore), F Duje Dukan (senior), G Zak Showalter (sophomore), F Vitto Brown (sophomore)
SB Nation community: Bucky's 5th Quarter
How the Badgers can go deep this year: Maintain balance on both sides of the ball
Because of Ryan's methodical approach to offense, it's easy to be surprised that the Badgers finished last year fourth in the country in offensive efficiency. What's even more impressive is that Wisconsin did it against what KenPom ranked as the hardest schedule in the country.
The Badgers were incredible at limiting turnovers and finding easy looks within Ryan's offense last season. Wisconsin finished No. 2 in the country in offensive turnover percentage and No. 32 in effective field goal percentage, per KenPom. The big question this year will be if Wisconsin can maintain that level of heady play after the graduation of guard Ben Brust.
Brust is the only notable departure for Wisconsin, but he leaves big shoes to fill. Brust played over 86 percent of the minutes for the Badgers last year, and was a top crunch-time option whenever they needed a big shot. Brust made 96 three-pointers a year ago and was great at protecting the ball. Will Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser be good enough to outplay the type of explosive guards Wisconsin will see late in the tournament?
The Badgers know what they have in Gasser, who turns 23 years old in February. Gasser will be asked to be Wisconsin's top perimeter defender. While he's a bit undersized at 6'3, he's a tireless worker who won't give up any easy buckets. Offensively, Gasser is a spot-up shooter who will keep defenses from collapsing down on Kaminsky, Dekker and Nigel Hayes in the paint. Gasser made 43.1 percent of his threes last season and over 45 percent the year before that -- his ability to stretch the floor and hit big shots will be key to keeping Wisconsin's offense near the top of the rankings all season.
Jackson is more of a question mark, but he has plenty of physical ability and should be better than ever as a senior. For a team that's so good at protecting the ball, Jackson has incidentally gained a reputation for being a bit careless with it. After averaging four assists per game last year, Jackson has the chance to be a great table setter for his talented teammates. More than anything, he just needs to get Wisconsin into its sets and run the offense.
Hayes' arrival gives Wisconsin some toughness in the front court to compliment Kaminsky's perimeter game while also pushing Dekker to the wing, where he will have a big size advantage over whoever he's playing. Hayes was a revelation as a freshman who wasn't a top 150 recruit out of high school. He's got good hands and a soft touch around the rim that should make him a force in the Big Ten for years to come.
The bench will be powered by sophomore guard Bronson Koenig and fifth-year senior Duje Dukan. Koenig was a top 100 recruit who chose Wisconsin over Duke and North Carolina. He'll be the sixth man this season and gives the Badgers some welcomed offensive firepower off the bench. Dukan is a classic floor-stretching big that Ryan covets so much. If you include Dekker, the Badgers will have a four-man big rotation as good as any team that isn't Kentucky.
The offense is going to be very good. Can the defense be better than No. 49 in the country, where it ranked last season? If so, no one is going to look forward to playing the Badgers.
How Wisconsin can get sent home early: Insufficient guard play
Wisconsin's front court is great, but college basketball games are often decided by the guards. Do the Badgers have enough to make up for the loss of Brust? So much of it is going to fall on Jackson's shoulders.
It's certainly possible that Jackson could be among the best guards in the Big Ten this season. He's the son of longtime NBA player Jimmy Jackson and has been through gauntlet with Ryan as a three-year contributor. He's never been an especially great scorer, though, setting a career-high with a measly 40.8 field goal percentage last season. If either he or Koenig can establish themselves as a solid two-way option against elite competition, Wisconsin is set up for a big year.
The pressure that comes with huge preseason expectations might be daunting for some teams. Dekker and Kaminsky are playing for NBA millions, while players like Jackson and Hayes want to ascend that high. At this point, though, trusting Ryan to keep everything in order is a safe bet. A Wisconsin team this loaded has been a long time coming, and the Badgers won't want to waste this golden opportunity.