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Wisconsin outside linebacker Zack Baun (right) could be an important addition to the starting lineup.

Wisconsin mailbag: Basketball graduate transfer options, most important new football starter, hoops recruiting battles

Jesse Temple

Have Wisconsin football, basketball or recruiting questions? We’ve got answers. Join us every Wednesday for the Land of 10 Wisconsin mailbag to talk all things Badgers. This week, we discuss which basketball players could be graduate transfer options, potential basketball recruits in future classes, the football program’s strength and conditioning efforts, three areas for basketball improvement next season, which football player stepping into a starting role is most important and more.

Question 1

Answer: I received some variation of this question about basketball graduate transfers more than any other this week. Wisconsin has one more available scholarship in the 2018 class now that forward Andy Van Vliet has opted to transfer, and it makes complete sense to pursue an instant impact frontcourt player. However, few names have leaked out in connection with the Badgers.

Wisconsin was among several schools that reportedly reached out to Evansville graduate transfer Ryan Taylor. Taylor is a 6-foot-6 shooting guard who led the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring at 21.2 points per game last season. But that wouldn’t really solve Wisconsin’s frontcourt need. Plus, Taylor will have his pick from dozens of other programs that better suit him.

For those interested, there is a tremendously helpful website that specifically tracks potential graduate transfers every year in the FBS and for Division I basketball. The list of basketball players continues to grow each week.

Pittsburgh’s Ryan Luther could be one name to watch. He is a 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward who averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds last season. Luther missed the final two months of the season with a stress reaction in his right foot and sat out 12 games the previous season with a stress fracture in the same foot. If he earns a medical hardship waiver, he could be the perfect fit for Wisconsin as a big man who can pick and pop. Luther is a career 41.4-percent 3-point shooter. However, Luther appears to be strongly considering a transfer to Arizona.

Old Dominion’s Trey Porter is a 6-foot-10, 230-pound forward who graduated in December, has one more year of eligibility and can play immediately. He averaged 13.2 points and 6.2 rebounds last season. And North Carolina A&T’s Femi Olujobi is a 6-foot-8, 233-pound forward who averaged 16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds.

Any of these players would help Wisconsin. But there must be mutual interest, and that player must fit into the Badgers’ culture and system. We don’t know which players Wisconsin will pursue heavily, but this is the year the Badgers could really use a graduate transfer.

Question 2

Answer: I wrote a story in August that focused on the efforts Wisconsin’s football program has made toward improving nutrition. The person who has really spearheaded the charge is Shaun Snee, the Wisconsin football team’s assistant strength and conditioning coach and sports nutrition consultant. I’d say the nutrition component goes hand-in-hand with the strength and conditioning program.

Snee already was a certified strength and conditioning specialist. But he worked to become a certified sports nutritionist through the International Society of Sports Nutrition. That designation allowed Snee to provide full, detailed meal plans for Wisconsin’s football players last January, just as the Badgers’ offseason began.

In the story, I mentioned that Snee worked as part of a team with strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej, assistant strength and conditioning coaches Kyle Costigan, Shaud Williams and Jeff Moore and director of performance nutrition Nick Aures. The coordinated effort between nutrition and weight lifting helped Wisconsin players set more than 400 personal records in the weight room last offseason.

If you haven’t read the story, I encourage you to check it out for a look at how seriously some of the Badgers’ players take their nutrition.

Question 3

Answer: Badgers fans obviously hope Wisconsin is able to land both players, which would represent two major recruiting wins and significantly raise expectations. I spoke to Jalen Johnson and his family for a story that ran in January, and he has a long way to go in his recruiting process. I also have a story that is running Thursday with an update on DJ Carton.

Johnson is ranked as the No. 8 player in the 2020 recruiting class and is only halfway through his high school career. But the more he dominates at the high school level and on the AAU scene, the more offers will come rolling in. Last week, he earned new offers from Florida and Kansas State. Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky all will come calling.

The good news for Wisconsin is that the Badgers were in on Johnson early, and he plays at Sun Prairie, which is only 25 minutes from the Kohl Center. Johnson was a frequent visitor this season at Badgers games and has strong relationships with the coaching staff. I’d venture to guess Wisconsin is still the leader for Johnson. But the question is whether he’ll be enticed to play for a college basketball blueblood, which is difficult for a lot of players to turn down.

Carton is the No. 4 point guard in the 2019 class. Wisconsin’s advantage with Carton also stems from the fact that the Badgers identified him before so many other schools. Carton earned a Wisconsin scholarship offer last June, and it marked his first high-major offer. But he blew up on the AAU circuit last summer and now has a total of 14 offers. Carton did not have a chance to visit Wisconsin during the season but told me he would like to come back.

Carton told me he was looking to visit Ohio State, USC, Wake Forest and Virginia this summer. Vanderbilt recently contacted his mom as well. There are so many schools involved, and Carton didn’t tip his hand, so it’s difficult to say what he’ll decide. When I asked Carton if the commitment of point guard Tai Strickland in Wisconsin’s 2018 class could impact his recruitment, he said he was evaluating everything as he made his choice. He wants to go to a place where he can start and earn good minutes. That doesn’t rule out the Badgers, but it does make things more interesting.

If I had to pick Johnson or Carton today, I would pick Johnson. But so much is sure to change with offers and visits in the coming months that it’s impossible to know.

Question 4

Answer: 1. Wisconsin’s field goal percentage defense was 45.9 percent, which ranked No. 274 in the country. The Badgers were not a great defensive team for long stretches during the 2017-18 season, which can be attributed to youth, inexperience and a lack of healthy bodies. We saw how much better Wisconsin played down the stretch, and a big reason for that improvement was defensive execution. If the Badgers can carry over the momentum they collected from the end of the season, they’ll be tough to handle next season.

2. Wisconsin was supposed to have shooters capable of making defenses pay for double-teaming Ethan Happ. We rarely saw that happen consistently, which only made life more frustrating for Happ. The Badgers shot 33.5 percent on 3-pointers, which ranked No. 253 nationally. It certainly didn’t help that Happ and Khalil Iverson combined to go 1-for-35 shooting on 3-pointers during the season. But even if you take their numbers out of it, Wisconsin shot 35.3 percent on 3s. Brad Davison’s shooting declined as he battled a left shoulder injury and logged heavy minutes (35.5 percent on 3-pointers). Brevin Pritzl was inconsistent, even though he found his rhythm late in the season (35.6 percent on 3-pointers). When your top two 3-point shooters by volume can’t even make 36 percent, it’s going to be a problem.

3. The third improvement simply involves personnel. Wisconsin’s guard depth was depleted last season because of injuries. But with D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King healthy, Trevor Anderson eligible and Tai Strickland committing in the 2018 class, there will be no shortage of guards next season. I’d like to see those guards create a tough competition for minutes so players are constantly fresh on the court in games. I’d also like to see Wisconsin be able to create off the dribble deep in the shot clock, which is something that was lacking last season. And hey, it wouldn’t hurt if the Badgers could squeeze some more productivity out of forwards Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas or land a graduate transfer player in the frontcourt.

Question 5

Answer: It’s only a matter of time before offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard are presented with job offers that provide more money and better professional opportunities. As we’ve seen over the years at Wisconsin, that’s the price the Badgers pay for winning — which is not a bad thing. It means other programs are recognizing Wisconsin’s success and want to hire coaches who were a part of that winning culture.

Rudolph is 45 and has a wealth of coaching experience, dating to his days as a graduate assistant at Ohio State from 2004-06. He has worked on staff at Nebraska, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh. I have to imagine a head coaching opportunity will materialize in the next few years given how well he has performed in his second stint at Wisconsin.

Leonhard is 35 and has only been a coach for two years. But the job he’s done as Wisconsin’s defensive backs coach and now as the defensive coordinator is outstanding. Leonhard was rumored as a candidate in December for Florida State’s vacant defensive coordinator job. Like Rudolph, Leonhard loves Madison. He has a young family and would only leave for the right situation. Perhaps it will be as a college head coach or as an NFL coordinator. But he should have no shortage of options if he continues on this path.

Question 6

Answer: Safety Moses Douglass actually committed to Kentucky last week, so he’s out of the mix for Wisconsin. Douglass’ father, Maurice, told me last month that the family intended to visit Wisconsin during spring break in late March or early April. But that visit obviously never happened because Moses made up his mind about Kentucky. That’s the same school where Maurice starred as a defensive back.

That leaves 4-star safety Lewis Cine, who transferred this offseason from his school in Massachusetts to Trinity Christian School in Texas. Cine holds 31 scholarship offers, and the Badgers will be in for a dogfight because he’s the No. 3 cornerback in the 2019 class. The good news is that Cine likes Wisconsin’s program.

“Way before I had the offers, I told my defensive coordinator to reach out to the Wisconsin staff and send out my film to them to get a response,” Cine told me in August. “It was kind of a late response, but I was still waiting for it. When they finally offered, it was a surreal moment for me. …

“I definitely know that Wisconsin is one of the top schools. That’s definitely a school that I would like to visit and get down there.”

Question 7

Answer: I could pick from a number of players on the defensive line or in the secondary. But I’ll go with outside linebacker Zack Baun. Baun still has to earn a starting spot opposite Andrew Van Ginkel, but he certainly has put himself in position to make the jump in 2018. It’s easy to forget that Baun would have been a big contributor last season if not for a season-ending left foot injury he suffered during fall camp.

Outside linebackers in Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense tend to have a major impact every week. We’ve seen how guys like Joe Schobert, T.J. Watt, Vince Biegel, Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs have wreaked havoc the past three seasons. Van Ginkel likely will be a major focal point of opposing offenses because of how well he played late last season. Given that inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly also are now household names across the Big Ten, it could free up Baun to make big plays this season.

Question 8

Answer: Wisconsin’s basketball program has four scholarship offers out to prospects in the 2019 recruiting class: point guard DJ Carton (Bettendorf, Iowa), forward Nobal Days (Racine, Wis.), forward Zeke Nnaji (Hopkins, Minn.) and forward Matthew Hurt (Rochester, Minn.). Of that group, Carton and Days are the top targets, but Nnaji is also an important player in the group.

Carton is the No. 4 point guard in the nation but has 14 scholarship offers. Days is 6-9 and has excellent vision and passing ability. I wrote about Days and his unique skill set last week.

As it stands now, Wisconsin would have four available scholarships in 2019-20. Joe Hedstrom, who will be a walk-on in 2018, is set to earn a scholarship beginning in 2019. But the Badgers will lose Khalil Iverson, Ethan Happ, Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas. It’s clear the 2019 recruiting class will be vital to keeping Wisconsin relevant in the Big Ten.

Have a question about Wisconsin football, basketball or recruiting? Tweet us @Landof10Badgers and we’ll try to answer your question in a future mailbag. Check to see if your question already was answered by reading previous Wisconsin mailbags here.