The No. 9 Badgers Welcome Back all Five Starters with Lofty Expectations as They Eye Final Four Return in Head Coach Greg Gard’s First Full Season
After making back-to-back Final Four appearances with Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky in 2014 and 2015, the Wisconsin Badgers faced some uphill battles last season. Not only did long-time head coach Bo Ryan abruptly retire after the team’s first 12 games, but Bucky still managed to rebound from a 9-9 start to finish the season with a 22-12 record while claiming a tie for third place in the Big Ten. Not to mention earning a berth into NCAA Tournament for the 18th straight season. Despite being a sixth-seed, the Badgers reached the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the last six seasons after a memorable buzzer-beating three-pointer from Bronson Koenig to upset Xavier. A subsequent loss to Notre Dame halted their cinderella season and hopes of making it back to the Final Four for a third straight season.
Now that Greg Gard has had a full offseason under his belt with seemingly everyone back from last season, the Badgers are more than ready to make yet another deep NCAA tournament run in March. Let’s take a look at how this year’s Wisconsin team looks heading into this season.
- 24 – PG – Bronson Koenig – 6’3″ – SR – La Crosse, WI
- 3 – SG – Zak Showalter – 6’3″ – SR – Germantown, WI
- 10 – SF – Nigel Hayes – 6’8″ – SR – Toledo, OH
- 30 – PF – Vitto Brown – 6’8″ – SR – Bowling Green, OH
- 22 – C – Ethan Happ – 6’10” – SO – Milan, IL
This Badgers team will rely heavily on its four seniors in the starting lineup. It’s no secret they are led by Nigel Hayes, who led the team with 15.7 points per game last season, and Bronson Koenig, who finished second in scoring at 13.1 points per game, respectively. Hayes has made plenty of headlines this offseason advocating for payment of fellow college athletes as well as speaking out for the racial injustices people suffer throughout the entire country. Most notably, he wrote a letter that he posted on his twitter about an incident that happened at a UW football game against Nebraska this season.
— Nigel Hayes (@NIGEL_HAYES) November 8, 2016
Getting back to the hardwood, Hayes and his teammates know they have some unfinished business. There’s no question the Badgers should be Big Ten title contenders this season. Along With Hayes and Keonig, Wisconsin should see a ton of contribution from Big Ten Freshman of the year Ethan Happ, who was third on the team in scoring at 12.4 points per game along with 7.9 rebounds per game. Happ was the unsung hero for the Badgers after the pressure of a heavy workload got to Hayes and Koenig.
Zak Showalter is the energy guy of the starting five who does a lot of little things well. Not only will he knock down the open three but he’s one of the better defenders in the Big Ten. Vitto Brown, who averaged 9.7 points and 5.0 rebounds a game, also came on strong towards the end of the season last year and showed the ability to knock down the outside shot by making 40% of three-point attempts last season.
- 0 – D’Mitrik Trice – G – 6’0″ – FR – Huber Heights, OH
- 21 – Khalil Iverson – G – 6’5″ – SO – Delaware, OH
- 25 – Alex Illikainen – F – 6’9″ – SO – Grand Rapids, MN
- 11 – Jordan Hill – G – 6’4″ – JR – Pasadena, CA
- 15 – Charles Thomas IV – F – 6’8″ – SO – Highland, MD
Just as important as the starters will be, the bench unit will also be key for the Badgers. While not to be relied heavily on for scoring, but more for an energy boost when they need a spark. Sophomore Khalil Iverson can jump out of the gym and get his team going with monster dunks.
Sophomore Charlie Thomas is a big body who can be a force in the paint when the Badgers need some muscle while Jordan Hill and Alex Illikainen should provide some solid outside shooting off the bench. One guy to keep an eye on is the freshman D’Mitrik Trice, the younger brother of former Michigan State standout Travis Trice. The scouting report on Trice is that he’s athletic and possesses supreme leadership qualities already as a freshman. Not only did he lead his high school team to a state championship as the point guard, but also led the football team to the state championship as the starting quarterback. His athleticism should fit right in with the program.
- 1 – Brevin Pritzl – G – 6’3″ – RFR – De Pere, WI
- 2 – Aleem Ford – F – 6’8″ – FR – Lawrenceville, GA
- 4 – Matt Ferris – G – 6’6″ – SO – Appleton, WI
- 5 – Aaron Moesch – F – 6’8″ – JR – Green Bay, WI
- 20 – T.J. Schlundt – G – 6’5″ – SO – Oconomowoc, WI
- 31 – Michael Ballard – G – 6’4″ – FR – Oak Park, IL
- 33 – Andy Van Vliet – F – 7’0″ – SO – Antwerp, Belgium
The main guys to watch out for here should be freshman forward Aleem Ford, the high school teammate of D’Mitrik Trice, and guard Brevin Pritzl. Ford was offered a scholarship after the Badgers were originally scouting Trice and has received high praise from the coaching staff. Pritzl was forced to redshirt last season due to a season-ending injury he suffered very early on but is an athletic guard similar to Showalter that can fill it up from deep. Another guy to keep an eye on will be sophomore Andy Van Vliet from Belgium. The seven-footer was ruled ineligible last season due to an enrolling issue but could find his way into Gard’s rotation this season.
Update: Via UWBadgers.com – Freshmen Aleem Ford and Michael Ballard announced on Friday their intentions to redshirt the 2016-17 season. They freshmen duo will return to eligibility next season.
When you return all five starters and key contributors from a team that made the Sweet 16, it gives you a good chance to repeat and make an even deeper run now that they are all a year older. The Badgers have a favorable schedule with a few non-conference opponents such as Creighton, Syracuse, Oklahoma, and Marquette that should beef them up for what should be a tough Big Ten Season. Not to mention, the Badgers will face some quality opponents starting with Tennessee in the Maui Invitational with potential dates against teams like UConn and North Carolina among others. As long as the Badgers stay the course and continue to play well as a team, they should have no problem contending for a Big Ten title with the possibility of getting back to the Final Four for the third time in four seasons. While it will take everybody, the success of this season hinges on their leaders Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes. While not super flashy, expect the Badgers to do the little things well and outwork teams to get the majority of their wins.
The Badgers open the season tonight at home against Central Arkansas at 7:00 p.m. CT.