With a heavy heart and enough retrospect, we look to the future, to next year’s team. To attempt to put Monday night into some greater context, in my birth year of 1994, the Badgers made their third-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Since 1999, they have not missed the tournament, a remarkable stretch of consistency the likes of which few programs have achieved.
But the past two years have delivered unprecedented success to the basketball team nestled between Lakes Monona and Mendota, reaching the Final Four in consecutive years with virtually the same roster.
In the 2015-’16 season, attrition will finally strike, and in a big way. Starters Frank Kaminsky, Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson all depart and take a set of skills with them that has no natural replacement on the roster. Also gone is Duje Dukan, a fifth-year senior who brought a sweet shooting stroke from the outside and an increased willingness to take charges and play physical defense off the bench.
Another potential loss is junior forward Sam Dekker, a possible NBA lottery pick. Over the past three weeks he has made the strides fans have been yearning for ever since the lanky Sheboygan native committed after his sophomore year of high school.
Back will be rising juniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, two players who should be fixtures of All-Big Ten teams for the foreseeable future and have both shown the ability to take and make big shots. Paired with Koenig in the backcourt should be Zak Showalter, a fan favorite due to his boundless energy, stingy defense and knack for grabbing the rim, with or without the basketball. Showalter could develop into an offensively limited version of Gasser; however, he’ll need to subscribe to the Hayes three-point plan of taking a million shots a day over the summer to create a reliable shooting presence. He stands at 4-of-24 in his collegiate career from deep.
If Dekker doesn’t return, the starting frontcourt could be some combination of Hayes with redshirt freshman Ethan Happ and rising junior Vitto Brown at center. While hearing the words “starting at center, the 6-foot-8 junior from Bowling Green, Ohio” over the Kohl Center PA doesn’t really inspire confidence, many players have made the jump from their sophomore to junior year under coach Bo Ryan, including Kaminsky and Jared Berggren before him.
Happ came in as a highly touted recruit and wisely chose to sit this season, as he knew that minutes would come at a premium. He’s looked strong on the scout team, battling with Kaminsky day-in and day-out, but there hasn’t been a particularly strong track record of second-year players contributing big minutes under Ryan.
Brevin Pritzl and Alex Illikainen headline the incoming recruiting class as four-star recruits, according to 247Sports. Pritzl, from De Pere, looks to be Ben Brust Jr. and has the kind of unlimited range you just can’t teach. He could play right away and provide depth alongside Jordan Hill in the backcourt.
Illikainen, a 6-foot-9 forward from Grand Rapids, Minn., looks the part of a classic Wisconsin big man who can shoot the three while sporting a developing post game. He probably needs time to develop, but he could play sparse minutes to help the front-line if he doesn’t redshirt.
Also coming in are a pair of three-star recruits, Charlie Thomas, a still-developing big man out of Maryland, and Khalil Iverson, a 6-foot-5 tweener who had an impressive stretch of three triple-doubles in 11 days in February. I wouldn’t expect much out of either of these two next season, but they are certainly names to watch down the line. There’s also an extra scholarship (or two if Dekker leaves) that could be used.
After going 66-12 over the past two seasons, the program’s status has never been higher, but the team will likely take a step back. While the school’s NCAA Tournament streak likely won’t end, Ryan’s Top 4 streak could be in jeopardy with Maryland looking like a Top 5 team flanked by a strong-looking collection of Indiana, Purdue and both Michigan schools.