Last year was expected to be a down year for the Badgers, the only question was how down. Turned out to be pretty darn down. Both of their precious streaks—the streak of "top 4" Big Ten finishes and the more-of-a-real-thing streak of 19 consecutive tourney births—were reset to zero.
The big question now is whether last year was a blip or a sign of a new equilibrium. The jury is still out on whether Greg Gard can keep the program anywhere close to its level of success under Bo Ryan. It's irrational not to expect some slippage—both because Bo was a genius and because Bo probably got a little lucky—but again the question is: how much?
One startling thing about last year's team was that it was mediocre-to-bad on both ends. Bo Ryan's less formidable teams typically were able to exhibit excellence on at least one end or the other. The most famous example of this was the 2012-13 team, where Sam Dekker often sat on the bench while Ryan Evans played. It was frustrating to the average fan than an offensively challenged team was sitting its best pure offensive talent, but that was Bo's genius. (I guess.) That's one reason why it's a little hard to imagine this year's squad contending at the top of the conference: exactly what will they excel at?
The optimist will point out that last year's team did have plenty of plausible excuses. First, before the wheels fell off, they lost several close games that they easily could have won. Then they lost Trice and King to injury, while Brad Davison was afflicted with a left shoulder that popped out just about every game. Even so, by the end of the year they seemed to have returned to playing like a bubble-quality team. Given that they should get all three hobbled players back to full strength, return every player of consequence, and have a potential All-American in Ethan Happ, at least a tourney bid seems like a reasonable expectation.
But some doubts remain. There's little hope that Happ will develop an outside game, so the core of the Badgers' offense will remain Happ down low and kick-out three pointers. Which means it's a problem that Khalil Iverson is an extreme liability from distance. Iverson figures to be the team's defensive specialist, so he'll need to play a lot. Can a modern offense really succeed with two non-shooters?
Then there's my concern that the game has caught up to the Badgers. The Bo-ification of college basketball is complete. Once upon a time, Wisconsin basically stole points by taking bad shots instead of turning it over, and by walling off the defensive glass instead of sending guys on futile run outs. Now most everybody tries to the same thing, so the tactical advantage is neutralized.
Still, this team figures to be around the upper third of Ryan / Gard era teams in terms of talent and experience. The early guess is that Gard will use his depth at guard—Davison, Trice, Pritzl, King, and Trevor Anderson (a transfer from UW Green Bay)—to surround Happ with shooters and finally make teams pay for doubling the post.
Ultimately, it's a pivotal year for Gard and the continuing legacy of Bo Ryan. If the team gels and makes the tournament, Gard will be well entrenched and they'll return a solid core of upperclassman that will likely be expected to contend in the Big Ten next year. If things don't go as hoped, however, Gard will likely need to make the tournament next year to keep his job.