My normal rule is never under any circumstances predict a Bo Ryan-led Wisconsin Badgers team outside of the Top 25 in my preseason rankings. However, the devastating torn ACL injury suffered by Josh Gasser in the preseason is a massive loss that has me going against my usual instincts.
Gasser was expected to transition from the shooting guard position to the point, replacing experienced floor leader Jordan Taylor. Ryan praised Gasser's growth during the offseason under the newly implemented NCAA rule of coaches being able to work with their guys for limited time during the summer. Now that responsibility of being the lead guard will fall onto the shoulders of redshirt freshman George Marshall.
"With George being a freshman, he's going to take his bumps and bruises," Ryan admitted when I spoke to him at the Big Ten Media Day. He did show some confidence in his young point guard's ability, referring to Marshall as, "very competitive, quick with the ball, and a good shooter."
Senior center Jared Berggren picked up on that thought, "[George]'s quick. He's aggressive. He's fearless. He's tough. He's going to do whatever coach asks of him. Going head-to-head with Jordan last year everyday in practice, they had some good battles. That's definitely going to help prepare him for what we need him to do this coming season. The biggest thing for him is getting some game experience."
Gasser's move to the one was already going to open up some concern about who would step into the starting shooting guard role. Sharpshooter Ben Brust appears to be the favorite since he saw quality minutes off the bench last year. Brust was extremely streaky last year, and the Badgers will need more consistency with his outside shot to help offset the losses of Taylor and Gasser, who combined to average more than 22 points per game last year.
Gasser's injury also limits the already thin options on the bench. Sophomore Traevon Jackson now becomes the primary reserve and must play some point guard as well, which is not his natural position. Freshman Zak Showalter was originally supposed to be a walk-on but earned a scholarship after the much-debated transfer of forward Jared Uthoff and could see spot minutes if there happens to be foul trouble or another injury of some sort.
With a lack of experience in the backcourt, the leadership now shifts to the senior frontcourt of Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans, and Mike Bruesewitz. Berggren is a skilled center who will hold down the fort in the middle. In typical Wisconsin big-man tradition, he can stretch the floor with his outside shooting but also has a variety of moves on the block. Berggren is also the conference's top returning shot-blocker.
Still, he didn't make CBS Sports' list of top 50 centers in college basketball preseason. Berggren chuckled when I asked him about that at Big Ten Media Day. "I don't really care too much about preseason stuff," he said. "They pick our team middle of pack, they leave us off preseason lists, it doesn't really matter to us. Hopefully we can find our way onto some lists and find some success throughout the season, and people will be talking about us at the end of the year."
Sophomore Frank Kaminsky will back up Berggren and is another inside/outside threat capable of knocking down threes or scoring in the paint. Evan Anderson barely saw the floor last season and provides another big body off the bench. His development has been very minimal however, as he is really nothing more than a stiff who has struggled to grasp what Ryan asks of his bigs on both ends of the floor.
Evans made a solid jump during his junior year emerging as Wisconsin's second-leading scorer. He has always been known for his athleticism, but showed development in his all-around offensive repertoire, which now includes a consistent mid-range game and the ability to use his quickness to power dribble and finish at the rim. Showing more consistency from behind the arc will be the key for him to really take his game to the next level.
As for Bruesewitz, he suffered a leg injury that could sideline him for the first couple weeks of the season. Bruesewitz struggled with his offense last season, but still made an impact with his rebounding, energy, and hustle; never afraid of getting on the floor or diving into the front row after a loose ball.
His injury likely opens the door for highly touted freshman wing Sam Dekker to see heavy minutes from the opening tip of the season. A top-20 recruit in the country according to some rankings, Dekker is 6-7 and might already be the most talented scorer on the Badgers roster. His versatility combined with a need for depth at guard might give him the opportunity to see some minutes at the two as well.
"Anytime you've got someone who can score from the outside and inside, who is long and who can defend, that's going to be an asset to your team," Evans said of his new teammate.
Berggren echoed those sentiments. "He's definitely a very talented kid, a kid that [sic] has the right attitude, eager to learn. He has all the talent necessary to get the job done, so I think he'll definitely be a guy who can help us out this year." Air Force transfer Zach Bohannon (the younger brother of former Wisconsin shooting guard Jason Bohannon) and Duje Dukan will compete for minutes off the bench as well.
The Badgers have never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten standings under Ryan. With three top-five preseason teams coming from the Big Ten, the always dangerous Michigan State, and a veteran-laden Minnesota squad combined with Gasser's costly loss; the deck is stacked against Wisconsin extending that incredible streak. The team isn't going to just lay down and roll over though.
"There's going to be plenty of adversity throughout the season," Berggren stated. "That's the nature of basketball. To get a little taste of it right now and see how we handle things going forward, I think it can definitely be a positive for us in the long run."
"Our team's always been an underdog collectively," Evans added. "It's something that really gives you that burn and drive to be great. I think we all feed of that."
Player to Watch: Sam Dekker, F
Freshmen typically don't find themselves in the immediate rotation on Bo Ryan-coached teams. While Dekker will certainly have to earn his minutes on both ends of the floor, he is too talented to keep buried on the bench. Dekker ended his high school career by scoring 13 points in the final 50 seconds of the state championship game on the Kohl Center floor and will look to carry over that type of success on that exact same hardwood.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/14 at Florida
11/23 vs. Creighton (Las Vegas Invitational)
11/24 vs. Arkansas/Arizona State (Las Vegas Invitational)