Frank Kaminsky, Men’s Basketball
No one’s really going to argue Sam Dekker isn’t the superior player and NBA prospect for Wisconsin. Yet, our pick for player to watch is ultimately more important for the Badgers as they continue their Big Ten campaign. As Wisconsin’s premier big man, junior forward Frank Kaminsky shoulders a large part of UW’s burden on defense and provides an important presence in the paint on offense.
In back-to-back losses to Indiana and Michigan, Wisconsin showed a very worrying inability to protect the paint. This exposure means you can expect every team in the Big Ten to throw pick and rolls and backdoor cuts at the 7-foot Kaminsky as he tries to defend the basket.
On the offensive end of the floor, Kaminsky is one of the best centers in the Big Ten, shooting .558 thus far in the season. That’s an incredible shooting line, but Kaminsky’s defense could be even more valuable given that he doesn’t have a teammate who registers significant minutes and measures above 6’9”.
That lack of size means Kaminsky’s development as an interior defender will be crucial for this Badgers team to revert to the level of defense you’d expect from a Bo Ryan team.
Michael Mersch, Men’s Hockey
Whether it’s the WCHA or newly inaugurated Big Ten conference, senior forward Michael Mersch is no stranger to leading the way in goals. The Park Ridge, Ill. native topped all other WCHA players last season with 22 goals, and currently leads the Big Ten with 14 goals, just ahead of teammate Mark Zengerle.
Mersch recorded his first career hat trick against conference rival Michigan Jan. 10, leading the Badgers to a 5-2 victory. The win also marked Merch’s second career four-point game.
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Mersch was named the Big Ten first star of the week Jan. 15, and is nominated for college hockey’s highest honor, the Hobey Baker Memorial Award. If he wins, Mersch would be the second Badger to receive the distinction, behind former Wisconsin star Blake Geoffrion.
The dynamic forward is poised to lead his team into the Big Ten Tournament this March, and potentially emerge as the first-ever Big Ten conference champion.
Mary Massei, Softball
After the best season in school history, it may be easier to look behind than to look ahead for the Wisconsin softball team. It’s senior outfielder Mary Massei’s job as the Badgers’ leading hitter, however, to make sure this season lives up to the sky-high expectations set after a record-setting 44-win season a year ago.
Massei, then a junior, hit .421 with 17 doubles for 2013 Big Ten Champion Wisconsin, propelling her team to a berth in the NCAA regional final before falling to Oregon 3-0.
The Badgers, behind Massei, were third in the Big Ten in batting average while the Chino Hills, Calif., was fifth among batters with at least 100 plate appearances, and was a unanimous choice on the first team All-Big Ten squad.
Once again, Big Ten softball looks to be a closely fought race, with traditional powers like Michigan and Nebraska returning experienced teams. The Badgers will need a strong performance from Massei and the rest of their seniors if they are to repeat the success of last season.
Alex Rigsby, Women’s Hockey
In her nearly four seasons as a Badger, Alex Rigsby has reached levels of success never before seen in the history of Wisconsin women’s hockey.
As a freshman during the 2010-’11 season, Rigsby posted an impressive record of 27-1-2 and led the nation with a .933 winning percentage. Despite her youth, Rigsby was stellar during the NCAA Tournament and was instrumental in the Badgers’ fourth national title run in six years.
She has broken more than a few school records during her time with the Badgers, which includes becoming the all-time leader in both wins and saves. Rigsby was named team captain before the season, an honor rarely given to goalies, and leads the nation in both goals-against average (1.02), save percentage (.957) and has bounced back from a sprained knee that caused her to miss seven games.
With one national title under her belt, Rigsby has high expectations for her senior season. Look for her to play with a little extra heart as her time in red and white comes to a close.
Michala Johnson, Women’s Basketball
After spending two years playing as a backup for basketball powerhouse Connecticut and a year off following a transfer to Wisconsin, all eyes are on redshirt junior Michala Johnson as she makes her mark for the Badgers (2-3 Big Ten, 9-8 overall) this season.
Johnson leads the team in points scored and field goal percentage, and is second only to senior Taylor Wurtz in rebounds.
The Bellwood, Ill. native’s game has only improved since the beginning of the season, producing a double-double with a career-high 32 points and 10 rebounds in the Badgers’ 74-58 loss to Northwestern Sunday.
The Badgers are looking to come back with a win in Big Ten conference play Thursday on the road against the Gophers.
With Johnson as the undisputed leader of the Wisconsin offense, she is sure to make waves as the women’s basketball season comes into its final stretch.