2008-09 Preview: Wisconsin

Wisconsin (Last season: 31-5, 16-2, #5 Pomeroy ranking): Considering how dominant Wisconsin was prior to the postseason, last season's abrupt end in the Sweet 16 at the hands of one-man wrecking crew Stephen Curry has to be considered a disappointment. Prior to that game, Wisconsin lost 4 games - at Duke, against Marquette, and both ends of the Purdue series. It was Bo Ryan's best team ever in Madison, and it was certainly good enough to be in the Final Four. Unfortunately the Badgers ran into The Best #10 Seed Ever, and were run out of the building.

What's so remarkable about last season is that, despite being so dominant, nobody saw it coming. Ok, almost nobody. The key to Wisconsin's success has been continuity. Rare is the Wisconsin player that leaves early, and rare is the Wisconsin recruiting class that is a flop. Bo Ryan has found his wheelhouse in college basketball - recruit the best local talent that he can, even if they aren't All-Americans, and keep them for four seasons. Brian Butch, Michael Flowers, Alando Tucker, Kammron Tucker, Mike Wilkinson...all of these guys hung around for 4 years (sometimes 5), and ensured that Wisconsin was above all else, experienced. Much has been made of Wisconsin's style - the swing offense, the deliberate pace, the "don't foul" defense, and some of it is actually true. But the real key to Wisconsin's success is seniors. The Badgers go as far as the seniors take them.

Of course, after Wisconsin blasted through the league this past season, there's been a collective vow on the part of the national media to never sleep on them again. However, if there's ever a time to sleep on Wisconsin, that time is now. The Badgers will still be good enough to make the tournament, and they're probably a good pick for 3rd in the conference, but that's a big step back from a 31-win season. Wisconsin had one of the best defenses in the country last year, holding opponents to 87.6 points per 100 possessions. To have a defense that good, a lot has to be working well. Opponents had a miserable 43.4 eFG, captured only 28.2% of the available offensive rebounds, and attempted only 25.6 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts (Wisconsin, by no means a stripe-heavy team, made 28.2 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts).

Going even further, we can probably identify the root cause of the low eFG and the rebounding: Wisconsin was really tall, and had some great rebounders. Butch and Steimsma were elite rebounders and Steimsma was perhaps the best shot blocker in the Big 10. Not only that, but Wisconsin played "tall." Flowers (6-2) and Hughes (6-1) were pretty normal, but opponents also had to contend with 6-7 forwards Landry and Krabbenhoft (each of whom could match up against guards), as well as a 7-footer in either Butch or Steimsma.

I'm confident Ryan can teach his returning players how to make up for the scoring that left town with Butch and Flowers, and that he can teach the new kids how to guard someone without fouling (or, if you're into conspiracy theories, that Ryan can continue his propoganda campaign). But I'm equally confident that Ryan can't teach height. To his credit, he has a couple of 7-foot freshmen coming in, but it is doubtful they will contribute significantly (such that they replace the seniors) in their first seasons. Ryan could opt to insert Jon Leuer into Butch's spot, but Leuer was an abysmal rebounder last season (8.9% DReb Percentage), and also did not show much shotblocking ability. It's likely Ryan will go small quite a bit, and move Landry to the 5 spot, Krabbenhoft to the 4, and use 3 guards with Hughes, Bohannon, and "TBD." This lineup is talented enough offensively, but it lacks the defensive abilities that can shut down opponents. Even so, Wisconsin should make the tournament, this year, and for the foreseeable future. _
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Projected Wisconsin rotation (statistics are for conference games only):