Breaking down one of the Big Ten’s preseason favorites …
WISCONSIN (22-13, 12-6 Big Ten in 2015-’16)
None. Zip. Nada. The Badgers return more than 99 percent of their scoring from last season and every key contributor from a roster that knocked off second-seeded Xavier in the NCAA Tournament last March to notch a Sweet 16 berth.
Key returning players
After a down-ish season in which he shot 36.8 percent from the floor but still averaged a team-best 15.7 points and 5.8 rebounds, 6-foot-8 forward Nigel Hayes spurned the NBA Draft to come back for his senior season. Point guard Bronson Koenig (13.1 points, 2.4 assists and 2.4 three-point makes per game) steadies the backcourt, where he figures to be flanked by senior wing Zak Showalter (7.5 points per game). Sophomore forward Ethan Happ, the Big Ten’s reigning Freshman of the Year, is the epitome what coach Greg Gard wants the Badgers to be about — the 6-10 Illinois native last winter led Wisconsin in rebounds (7.9 per game) and steals (1.8 per game) while averaging 12.4 points and raising holy heck in the paint (3.0 personal fouls per game, another team high). If Happ is the muscle, than senior forward Vitto Brown is Bucky’s secret weapon — the 6-8 senior was one of the Big Ten’s most versatile offensive threats a season ago, averaging 9.7 points, 1.1 three-point makes and 5.0 rebounds in just 25.4 minutes per contest. The five major pieces off the bench are all back, which should make competition in practice — and competition for court time — insanely fierce.
Freshman point guard D’Mitrik Trice, the younger brother of former Michigan State guard Travis Trice, is a drive-and-kick player who figures to blend in well with the bevy of spot-up shooters Gard already has on hand. Trice’s IMG Academy teammate, Aleem Ford (6-8, 208) lacks bulk but doesn’t lack for upside. Andy Van Vliet, a 7-foot sophomore who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA last season, is expected to push for minutes, as is redshirt freshman Brevin Pritzl, who appeared in only one game last season before being shelved with a broken foot.
When figuring out how to get enough time on the floor for so many good players is your worst problem and getting more efficiency out of Hayes is your next-worst, you don’t have problems. You’ve got a Big Ten favorite on your hands, a potential beast. Gard was forced to take the reins on the fly following Bo Ryan’s in-season retirement last winter, but now he’s had a full spring, summer and autumn to add his own wrinkles to the high standard he helped foster as one of Ryan’s right-hand men. Workouts and scrimmages have reportedly been as scrappy as sin, and Gard has the benefit of a veteran team that’s seen a little bit everything and knows full well where it wants to go. And, most importantly, how it’s going to get there.