The 2019-20 season was going to tell the nation where the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program is headed.
That’s not necessarily the case anymore, as coach Greg Gard and his staff extended that assessment with a successful summer of recruiting. But there’s still a lot of to be learned from a season that starts with Tuesday’s game against 20th-ranked Saint Mary’s in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The program has felt like it’s been in limbo since going to the Final Four in 2014 and 2015. Competing for national championships was out of the ordinary for the Badgers, and the ordinary never fully returned after the 2015 national championship loss to Duke. Frank Kaminsky left, Sam Dekker left, Josh Gasser left, Traevon Jackson left, Duje Dukan left, Bo Ryan left, Gard took over, and the Badgers never seemed to recover the firm footing that they lived on for the previous 15 years.
A couple down years were easily worth the high highs in the middle of the decade. Now, a veteran group of Badgers looks to bring the program back to a place where everyone knows what to expect when they see the UW jersey.
Everything appears to be settling down in 2019-20. Not much is expected from the Badgers, who didn’t receive a vote in the preseason Associated Press poll and were picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten by the conference’s media members. However, they appear to be returning to what the college basketball world is used to — a balanced team that plays the swing offense, slows the game down, defends and doesn’t beat itself. Fans haven’t really watched those Badgers since 2012-13, and it remains to be seen if the current program can still turn that formula into enough wins to compete atop the Big Ten.
This year could lay the foundation going forward. Gard’s got his recruits, his offense and his system, while he is no longer working around the uniqueness of Ethan Happ — a uniqueness that carried the Badgers but also prevented them from playing the way in which the program was built. Most importantly, the coaches have had their hands on this veteran group — which includes 10 juniors and a graduate student in Brevin Pritzl — for years. Pritzl, D’Mitrik Trice, Aleem Ford, Kobe King, Brad Davison and Nate Reuvers have all played significant minutes for the Badgers, and are at the point in their careers that typically leads to a leap in production.
The Badgers will be successful if several players can make the significant jump that has been lost in the program in recent years. UW teams of the past lived off players making jumps in their junior year, including Kaminsky, Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans, Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor. Those players all had less experience than the current crop of guys who will take the Kohl Center floor this winter.
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Davison, Reuvers and Trice have each started at least 45 games at UW, including all 34 games last year, while Ford, King and Pritzl have also started and played key roles. Trice, a 6-foot point guard, is the leading returning scorer at 11.6 points per game, followed by Davison (10.5) and Reuvers (7.9). Transfers Micah Potter and Trevor Anderson also started at least 15 games at Ohio State and Green Bay, respectively. There’s no sure-fire all-conference player, but all eight guys have experience in Wisconsin’s system and fit the way the Badgers like to play.
However, it might take time for someone to step into the go-to role. Gard’s tenure has been full of players who haven’t shown offensive development. The lack of development from Alex Illikainen, Andy Van Vliet and Charlie Thomas IV left the Badgers with nobody to play alongside Happ, while Nigel Hayes struggled to take his game to the next level, and Happ and Khalil Iverson never developed any semblance of a jump shot.
Ford, King and Reuvers are the most likely to show offensive development this year, as Trice and Davison have already been able to play their style and put up a significant number of shots. Any developments will start with increased aggressiveness, something that the graduation of Happ should help with. The 6-foot-10 Happ was extremely productive, but his herky-jerky style could be difficult for others to fit around. Everything ran through the post-heavy Happ, whose departure will leave the lane more open for drivers to attack and Reuvers to post up. Every Badger that takes the floor will also be an outside shooting threat.
The ball will run through a guard-heavy team that will likely have a balanced offense. It’ll be interesting to see just how balanced it is. The swing is great, but it has almost always had a focal point — someone to be scared of and create holes in the defense. The last year without a “star” was when Ben Brust and Berggren averaged 11.1 and 11.0 points per game, respectively, in 2012-13. The Badgers went 23-12 that year, including 12-6 to finish fourth in the Big Ten. Kaminsky broke out the next year, and the program has been different ever since.
The 2019-20 season is about starting fresh with a group that can return the program to consistency and get the program humming again. Whether or not that happens, the next five months will say a lot about where the UW men’s basketball program is going.
Follow Brock Fritz on Twitter @BrockFritz or contact him at 608-963-0344.