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On the Hardwood: Wisconsin Badgers

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A look back at the new look 2013-14 Wisconsin Badgers, their run to the Final Four and what lies in store for a squad that returns just about everyone.

Jeff Gross

Previously: PurdueNorthwesternPenn StateIndianaIllinoisMinnesotaIowaOhio StateNebraska CornhuskersMichigan State

Finally, here we are, the final season-in-review (okay okay, I still have to do Rutgers and Maryland). It feels like only yesterday I was writing about Northwestern's hilarious and awesome Big Ten run way back when.

Now, it's time to talk Badgers, a team that really went against the mold this season, bucking the trend of stereotypical Big Ten basketball (of which many considered Wisconsin to be the worst perpetrator of in years past) in favor of a blend of shooting (Ben Brust, Josh Gasser) skill (Sam Dekker) and a big time surprise in C Frank Kaminsky, the pride and joy of Lisle, Ill.

So, what happened this season?

I remember reading an Andy Glockner piece before last season began, in which he tried to explain that the 2013-14 team wouldn't look like the same old plodding Badgers -- it's amazing just how right he actually was.

I sat in the nosebleeds, having just watched Michigan defeat Texas in the second round of the tournament. The BMO Harris Bradley Center, packed with Badgers fans for the second game in the gym, was tense, as UW went down by double digits against a dynamic Oregon squad. Old UW would not have had the ability to come back and win that game -- look no further than the 2013 tournament for a true clunker of an offensive performance from Bo Ryan's squad.

This time was different. In concert with the increasingly emboldened UW crowd, the Badgers stormed back, winning the second half 48-28. This was not the grind-it-out Badgers of old.

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The Badgers rattled off 16 straight wins to start the season, including wins against Florida at the Kohl Center (albeit a short-handed Florida) and at Virginia. To start the conference slate, they wiped the floor with Northwestern, then landed a four-point victory against Iowa, in which Fran McCaffery's ejection resulted in, you guessed it, four UW free throw attempts.

After clocking the visiting Fighting Illini by 25, the Badgers then headed to Bloomington, where they'd drop their first game of the season. Things got worse from there, as the Badgers would lose to Michigan at home for the first time since 1999, and they'd also lose at The Barn by double digits. The offense had carried UW to that 16-0 start, which allowed people to quietly shuffle aside the evidence that this UW defense was not quite as stingy as it had been in the past.

UW bounced back with a nice 14-point win in West Lafayette, but followed that with two straight losses at home, to Northwestern and Ohio State. Northwestern beat UW at the Kohl Center. Again, nothing made sense.

The defense struggled, the shooting stopped being so lights out, and the Badgers fell to 4-5 in the conference, a fairly ridiculous bit of trivia in retrospect. From there, however, they righted the ship.

The Badgers tallied eight straight wins, including a convincing win at the Crisler Center on Feb. 16 and a win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena six days later. They closed the season with a loss at Nebraska, good for a Big Ten mark or 12-6.

In the conference tournament, they absolutely dismantled Minnesota in the quarterfinals before being dispatched by a revitalized Michigan State squad in the semifinal round. Regardless, they were riding high heading into the tournament and the prospect of playing their first two games in Milwaukee.

There, they handled American, then overcame a feisty Oregon squad after a poor first half. Again, they dispatched a Baylor team that, like Oregon, many said might be too much for Wisconsin. Honestly, the Badgers beat them with ease.

Then came the overtime thriller against 1-seed Arizona, punching a ticket to their first Final Four since 2000. Facing a Kentucky squad that just eliminated Michigan, the Badgers looked to carry the torch for the conference.

Once again, however, Aaron Harrison buried a triple late to give the Wildcats the lead with seven seconds lead, and UW couldn't respond.

A disappointing end, to be sure, especially given the fact that many people, myself included, would have liked UW's chances against UConn. But such is the nature of the Big Dance; you can construct hypothetical shadow worlds all you want, but what is is what is.

Numbers

  • UW finished just behind Michigan in points per possession, at 1.14 PPP.
  • They were third in eFG% (52.2 percent).
  • While the Badgers liked to shoot the three, they could also get to the charity stripe -- they finished first in the Big Ten during league play in free throw rate. They were also best in the league in opponents' free throw rate. Call it reductive, but that's a pretty solid formula for a lot of wins.
  • Bo Ryan's squad tied for second in the league with Michigan in three-point attempts (406). They were fourth-best at converting them (35.7 percent).
  • As has notoriously been their strategy, UW held Big Ten opponents to a league-least 287 three-point attempts. Northwestern was second-best, but well behind, with 350 attempts allowed. Again, prevent threes from being taken and, quite simply, you prevent them from being made.
  • On the glass, they were just sixth in DR% and 10th in ORB% (further accentuating the Michigan-Wisconsin parallels).
  • Despite Traevon Jackson's turnover issues, UW finished with a league-best turnover percentage of 12.2 percent). On the flip side, they were the least successful at forcing turnovers; but, again, that's not what they do.
  • Kaminsky finished: 5th in true shooting percentage, 5th in blocks per game, 5th in offensive rebounds per game, 7th in free throw percentage (remember, he's a center) and 7th in eFG%. That guy is back this year. I know their frontcourt was previously loaded, with Jared Berggren, Mike Brusewitz and Ryan Evans, but still: that guy averaged 10.3 minutes per game in 2012-13? How?

Roster shakeup

The big news here is that, well, there isn't much of a shakeup at all. The Badgers lost sharpshooter Ben Brust, who finished his Badgers career with a school-record 235 triples. Other than him, 2014-15 Wisconsin will largely resemble its 2013-14 iteration, with an added year of experience, especially important for guys like Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig (who should see a bigger role as a sophomore).

Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky both could have entered the draft, but I think both made solid decisions to return (especially Dekker). Dekker is just a solid all-around player, a slasher with ability to get to the rim and finish with authority:

His free throw shooting (69 percent) and accuracy from beyond the arc (33 percent) left a little to be desired, however. If he improves on those aspects of his game, I don't see why he wouldn't be a first-round pick in the 2015 draft.

Kaminsky is the headliner, of course. As Michigan fans know, he proved to be nearly unstoppable on the block, and he can also step out and shoot the three. Naturally, the 7-footer is also a shot-blocking threat in the middle. As we sit now, he's easily the preseason favorite for National Player of the Year.

Throw in redshirt senior Josh Gasser, whose defense and three-point shooting make him much better than your average role player, a sophomore Nigel Hayes (who was already a bull as a freshman) and a sophomore Bronson Koenig, and you have a really strong squad.

Oh, you thought I forgot about Traevon Jackson, didn't you? I've taken every opportunity to make this comparison, and I'll do it again: Jackson is the John Navarre of Wisconsin basketball. Like the quarterback from Cudahy, Wis., Jackson is good enough to help you win a lot of games. In fact, he's made quite a few so called "big plays" in his time as a Badger. However, the mistakes seem to stick out for him more than they do for a lot of players, for whatever reason.

In fact, you might even compare him to another quarterback: UW's own Joel Stave. Stave has shown flashes of being a pretty good quarterback, yet hasn't been able to put it together, so much so that he is getting set to battle Tanner McEvoy for the starting spot this fall. I don't think Jackson is really in danger of losing his spot--with George Marshall's transfer and Koenig still being just a true sophomore, I don't see that happening.

With that said, it's hard not to imagine the boo birds sounding especially loud when he makes a mistake that does cost UW a Big Ten game.

On the recruiting front, UW signed three-star 6-foot-8 F Ethan Happ. I'm not sure what I can say about him that isn't constructed out of thin air, so here's a blurb from his UW profile:

A two-time AP first-team All-State selection as both a junior and senior ... averaged a double-double (33 ppg, 15 rbg) as a senior at Rockridge High School and led the Rockets to a 28-1 record and No. 1 ranking in Class 2A ... as a sophomore, earned AP honorable-mention All-State honors and recorded 15 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and two assists per game ... named MVP of U-18 Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Germany, averaging 19.1 ppg, 10.7 rbg, 3.4 spg and 1.9 bpg through seven games.

What's next?

On the heels of another big season in Ann Arbor, Michigan fans probably don't want to hear this, but: Wisconsin is the early favorite to win the league, and I think they're in a tier of their own. After losing basically their entire frontcourt, the Badgers revamped, relying on sharpshooting and the usual passive-aggressive defense that elicits nothing but long twos and frustration from opponents.

The biggest development, however, was UW's ability -- and, at times, desire -- to play fast when needed. They still lounged near the bottom of the league in possessions per game, but for those who watched them play with any regularity, this was not a team content run the ball up the gut on first down and drain every second out of the ensuing play clock (not to mix metaphors).

Can they make it to the Final Four again (this year in the familiar territory of Indianapolis)? The odds are pretty good. The bench might be a little light, but this is college basketball -- not many teams are trotting out 10 guys when it matters. From 1-7, the Badgers are as good as just about anyone out there, through a combination of individual talent and just doing what they do, well.

Whether they do raise another Final Four banner is dependent upon a number of things, namely avoiding the injury bug and avoiding the "general tournament craziness" bug (see: Aaron Harrison). But, if you're asking if they've got the stuff to get there, well: when you say Wisconsin, you've said it all.