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Wisconsin has everyone back from a Sweet 16 team. The Badgers can go even further this year

The Badgers are the No. 9 team in our preseason countdown.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin appeared to be in shambles when Bo Ryan abruptly retired on Dec. 15, 2015. The Badgers were only 7-5 at that point and suddenly had to adjust to life without their legendary coach in addition to departed stars Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker.

That's why it was so impressive to see how interim coach Greg Gard closed the season. The Badgers won 11 of their final 13 regular season games and reached the Sweet 16, where they came within seconds of defeating Notre Dame.

The interim tag has been dropped from Gard and heightened expectations will follow. Wisconsin returns its entire starting lineup from last season, and enters the year with a real chance for its third Final Four appearance in four years.

Nigel Hayes is the headliner of the group as the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year. The key for the 6'8 forward will be polishing his Swiss army knife repertoire and returning to the offensive efficiency efforts of his sophomore campaign. Last season, Hayes connected on only 37 percent of his field goals and shot just 29 percent from the arc. For Wisconsin to reach its potential, Hayes has to live up to his billing as the Big Ten's best player.

Redshirt sophomore Ethan Happ will anchor the interior as a legitimate first-team all-conference candidate. His 12.4 points per game were good for third on the team and the hope around Madison is for Happ's 15.6-point, 9.3-rebound NCAA Tournament effort to serve as a springboard for his sophomore campaign.

Senior power forward Vitto Brown could join his praiseworthy teammates if he's able to continue building upon a junior campaign that ignited his confidence as a versatile frontcourt piece. A backcourt comprised of seniors Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter contributed 20.6 points, 6.6 boards, and 4.6 assists per outing last season and will be around to continue providing consistent shooting and veteran presence.

Who else can step up and make a substantial impact for the Badgers this season?

Khalil Iverson has do-it-all potential on the wing, but he was unable to consistently bring that to fruition as a true freshman. Iverson stepping into a larger, solidified role in the perimeter rotation could pay dividends for the Badgers, as he can be a force as a slasher and aid on the boards. Redshirt junior Jordan Hill could also be of service in providing Koenig and Showalter with relief if he can begin to translate increased minutes under Gard into on-court productivity. Former four-star shooting guard Brevin Pritzl will also join the rotation to add shooting value and guard depth off the bench after missing his freshman season with a broken foot.

In the paint, forwards Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas should be headed for increased duties off the bench. The key interior reserve contributions may stem from Andy Van Vliet, a 7-foot shooting guard trapped in a power forward's body who was declared ineligible last season after missing an NCAA enrollment deadline. The Belgium native could grow into an essential piece of the 2016-17 Badgers, making his impact felt as a sharpshooter and two-way interior presence.

Projected Lineup

PG Bronson Koenig, senior
SG Zak Showalter, senior
SF Nigel Hayes, senior
PF Vitto Brown, senior
C Ethan Happ, redshirt sophomore

Key Reserves: SF Khalil Iverson (sophomore), SG Jordan Hill (redshirt junior), Alex Illikainen (sophomore), PF Andy Van Vliet (sophomore), SG Brevin Pritzl (redshirt freshman)

How Wisconsin can succeed: Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ must elevate their arsenals even further.

To ultimately outlast a handful of projected powers in 2016-17, Wisconsin will need Hayes and Happ to play like the team's best players.

As noted, Wisconsin has no shortage of experience. In a vacuum, the team should be considerably more talented and deeper than last season. But Hayes will need to transform from a guy that does a lot of things good into one that does a lot of things good and a few things great. For starters, simply emerging as a consistent perimeter threat would work wonders for a Wisconsin offense that may see Happ emerge as the focal point.

Happ, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily need to become the next great college big man to follow of his Big Ten Freshman of the Year effort, but there's room for improvement. Adding a bit more strength could help Happ's 17.7-point, 11.3-rebound per 40-minute averages look more like his sophomore per game efforts.

How Wisconsin can go home early: Failing to utilize its depth

The Badgers' mid-season turnaround and eventual near-Elite Eight appearance was headlined by a tremendously experienced starting core. With 2016-17 looking to be a fairly top-heavy season headlined by NBA talent-laden teams including Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Villanova, and Oregon, Wisconsin's valid championship aspirations could be decided by Gard's use of his bench.

Last season, that wasn't the case—only 22.6 percent of Wisconsin's minutes came from its bench—a total that ranked 340th nationally.

The talent is in store for Hayes to not have to spend 36.2 minutes on the court each game and allow the backcourt of Koenig and Showalter to rest more than what became an average of only 5.1 and 8.6 minutes on the bench per game, respectively. And there's frontcourt depth if certain guys can take the necessary steps forward, but Gard can't leave them on the bench and refuse to find out.