Wisconsin’s basketball season came to an end on Friday with a 63-60 loss to Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. In many ways, the game epitomized the Badgers’ entire season. Wisconsin played with heart and determination, but simply did not have the depth to escape with a victory against one of the better teams in the conference.
Wisconsin closed the season 15-18 overall (and 7-11 in the Big Ten), and will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. However, the Badgers showed great promise down the stretch, which should be viewed as an encouraging sign for the future.
Here are three reasons for optimism for Wisconsin’s program entering next season:
1. Greg Gard will have actual options at guard
When Kobe King and D’Mitrik Trice sustained season-ending injuries in December, the Badgers’ backcourt was handcuffed in a way that threated to cripple the entire season. Taking two of the top four guards off any college basketball team in the country would be a devastating blow. Having it happen on a team that already was in a rebuilding mode of sorts made it exponentially more difficult.
Freshman Brad Davison was forced to slide over from the off-guard spot and handle point guard responsibilities. He performed admirably but also rarely exited the game. Davison and Brevin Pritzl were the only guards who played consistent minutes for the Badgers. Wisconsin coach Greg Gard had to occasionally rely on former walk-on T.J. Schlundt and also burn the redshirt of freshman walk-on Walt McGrory.
But the depth issues that plagued Wisconsin this season should be gone next season. Trice and King will provide the Badgers with talent and playmaking ability. Plus, Trevor Anderson will be eligible after transferring from Green Bay and being forced to sit out this past season under NCAA rules. Gard has been complimentary of Anderson’s work on the scout team. Trice averaged 9.4 points over 10 games, while King averaged 5.2 points. Anderson averaged 9.8 points per game as a freshman at Green Bay in 2016-17.
With five guards capable of playing, Gard won’t have to rely on just one or two players and overextend them during a season. It also will create competition and hold teammates accountable for mistakes in games. The key to a good season is strong backcourt play, and the Badgers should have plenty of it next season.
2. Brad Davison should be healthy
Even though Davison tried not to think about it, he’s going to need offseason surgery to repair a dislocated left shoulder that continued to pop out during games. Can you imagine how much better Davison can play when he has mobility in both arms?
Davison, who played with a bulky brace over his left shoulder, was a shining star through a disappointing season. He earned freshman All-Big Ten honors and finished second on the team in scoring (12.1 points per game) behind forward Ethan Happ. Davison became only the fourth Badgers freshman in the last 20 years to average double figures in scoring, joining Happ, Devin Harris and Alando Tucker. That’s pretty good company.
It was clear during the season that Davison could barely move his left arm, which impacted where he dribbled on the floor and how well he shot. His energy and effort lifted the Badgers to a higher place down the stretch, and he already has become the vocal and emotional leader of the team.
Davison figures to slide back into an off-guard spot with Trice healthy. But the experience he gained as a freshman should help him feel more comfortable occupying either role. Over his first 23 games this season, Davison recorded 54 assists and 50 turnovers. But in Wisconsin’s last 10 games, he tallied 29 assists and only 9 turnovers, even as he averaged 34.5 minutes per game. Wisconsin fans likely can’t wait to see what he does for an encore.
3. The Badgers bring back nearly everyone
Experience doesn’t guarantee success. But it certainly should help the Badgers as they enter next season. As of now, Wisconsin will lose three walk-ons or former walk-ons: Schlundt, Matt Ferris and Aaron Moesch. That means Wisconsin returns 97.5 percent of its scoring, 96.8 percent of its rebounding and 96.8 percent of its assists.
The key to Wisconsin’s success will be whether Happ returns for his senior season. Most mock drafts list Happ as a second-round selection in the NBA draft, which means he would not have a guaranteed contract. If Happ comes back, he’ll have an opportunity to rank in the top 3 in program history in every major statistical category. Wisconsin would be considered a viable NCAA Tournament team again. Happ will test the NBA draft waters but won’t hire an agent, which gives him the option to return to college if he doesn’t hear enough positive feedback.
Several players demonstrated significant improvement as the season wore on, which bodes well for 2018-19. Brevin Pritzl displayed mental toughness to fight through a dismal shooting stretch and became one of the go-to scorers near the end of the season. Pritzl hit the go-ahead shot to beat Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament with 36 seconds remaining. Khalil Iverson became an incredible defensive stopper and clinched that victory against the Terrapins with a steal in the waning seconds.
Aleem Ford proved to be one of the most consistent 3-point shooters on the team as a redshirt freshman and should benefit from another season in the weight room to bulk up and diversify his game. Of Wisconsin’s regular rotation players, he was the only one whose 3-point shooting exceeded 40 percent (40.9 percent).
Speaking of bulking up, Nate Reuvers should come back for his sophomore season looking like an entirely different player. Reuvers burned his redshirt season after five games because the Badgers were so desperate for frontcourt help. As a result, he often was outmuscled against bigger teams in the Big Ten. But he still held his own and finished third on the team with 26 blocks.
One of the bigger questions is whether the Badgers will find enough frontcourt help behind Happ and Reuvers. If Andy Van Vliet, Alex Illikainen and Charles Thomas all return, they will need to take significant strides forward to become key contributors. Or perhaps the coaching staff finds a graduate transfer to make an immediate impact. But overall, Wisconsin should enter next season in far better shape, with plenty of reason to believe its dive into the bottom half of the Big Ten will be short-lived.