The same or different? That’s the question for this year’s Wisconsin Badgers.
After losing Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson, this will be a very different-looking group. But Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, two of the Big Ten’s best players, are back. So is Bo Ryan, who always has his team in contention for a league title.
Exactly how much different the final result will be for a team who reached back-to-back Final Fours and finished last season as the national runner up, well that’s a complete mystery.
Is this a continuation of the past two seasons or a new chapter altogether?
“I would like to say a little bit of both,” Koenig said last month during Big Ten basketball media day. “Obviously the guys that we lost are very irreplaceable, so we’re just going to try to take the weight on our shoulders and kind of write our own chapter and do all we can to help our team win.”
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Kaminsky was the national player of the year, Dekker right there with him in terms of a quality season. Kaminsky and Dekker were both top-20 picks in this summer’s NBA Draft. Gasser was one of the Big Ten’s best defenders. Jackson missed a lot of time last season but was a senior leader with a knack for coming through in the clutch. Key reserve Duje Dukan was lost to graduation, too. Those five guys averaged a combined 52 points per game and accounted for 1,904 of Wisconsin’s 2,900 total points on the season, or 65.7 percent of the team’s scoring.
That’s a lot lost.
“With those guys gone, it only leaves us with statistically about 38 percent of the scoring,” Koenig said. “So that’s going to be a big point of emphasis is that we need to be more aggressive, and at the end of the shot clock, we need to know when we’re going to take our guys one-on-one. So that will be kind of a feeling process for us.”
But Hayes and Koenig are the reason the storyline this season isn’t the Badgers completely starting over.
Hayes was one of three Badgers to start all 40 games last season, and only Kaminsky averaged more than Hayes’ 33 minutes per game. Hayes ranked third on the team in scoring with 12.4 points per game and ranked second in rebounding with 6.2 boards per game. He led the team in steals, and he ranked third with both a 49.7 field-goal percentage and a 39.6 3-point percentage.
In his freshman season, he was the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year. In his sophomore season, he was a Third Team All-Big Ten selection and a key cog for a team that came a win away from a national championship. And apparently, as a junior, he’ll be even better.
“He’s a really hard worker,” Koenig said. “He does a lot of things that don’t end up on the stat sheet but also a lot of things that do like offensive rebounding, tip outs and stuff like that. Also just the ability to score and get to the free-throw line. He uses his body really well, and he’s got really good touch at the basket, he’s a great finisher. And I know he’s been working on his shot a lot over the past two summers, so we’ll have to see how that come to fruition this season.”
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Koenig is right there with Hayes, having a breakout season last year en route to being the starting point guard for the national runner up. He took over starting duties when Jackson went down with an injury not long after Big Ten play started and flourished, averaging 11 points a game as a starter. He finished the Big Ten’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio with 98 helpers to 33 turnovers. He ranked fourth on the team in scoring and shot 40.5 from 3-point range.
Koenig was especially huge in the Big Ten Tournament, scoring 12, 19 and 18 points in wins over Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State, hitting a total of nine 3-pointers in the trio of wins that helped propel the Badgers to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
While the guys who did the heaviest lifting in those back-to-back NCAA tourney appearances, Kaminsky and Dekker, are now playing pro ball, those postseason experiences are helping the guys who do still remain in Madison. Koenig said that he and Hayes are able to build off what they did in two straight Final Four trips.
“It gives us a lot of confidence because we have the experience that we’ve had playing in the national championship and the Final Four and everything like that,” he said. “I know we’re confident in our abilities, and we’re just going to have to step up as leaders this year.”
So it’s that mentality that makes this season a continuation of what the Badgers that came before them accomplished. But there’s plenty that’s going to be different. Hayes and Koenig are really good players, but they won’t be able to do it alone, especially after the Wisconsin teams of the last two years illustrated perfectly how much can be achieved by a team playing as a team.
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Who’s going to step up and become the new supporting cast for these new team leaders?
Koenig had a list handy.
“Definitely Ethan Happ, who was a redshirt freshman last year. He’s about 6-9. He’s really good. Charlie Thomas is an incoming freshman from Maryland, about 6-9 or so, big body. And then also Vitto Brown, he’s a junior that’ll definitely step up. And then a couple of guys at the guard spot are really competing and playing really hard.”
Make no mistake, without Kaminsky and Dekker dominating, without Gasser playing dynamite defense, this will be a very different Wisconsin team. But that doesn’t mean everything that made the Badgers one of college basketball’s best squads over the past two seasons has left. Hayes and Koenig are as good a 1-2 punch as you’re likely to find in the conference.
So this season, expect the Badgers to be the same. But different.
“The guys that we lost are irreplaceable,” Koenig reiterated. “We’re going to have to establish a new identity for ourselves, and I know guys are hungry to make a name for themselves.”