As you read various preseason Top 25 lists, every pundit is saying the same thing about Wisconsin: “I put the Badgers here just so I don’t look stupid at the end of the year” or something to that effect. It makes sense though, doesn’t it?
Despite the loss of three valuable seniors, the Badgers return four of their top five in terms of minutes played. That experience means all the things you have come to expect from a Bo Ryan-coached team will be true again in 2008-09: Wisconsin will play great team defense, commit fouls infrequently and land a player on the Big Ten’s all-conference first team. Touting the experience of this year’s team is ironic, given that 11 of the 17 players on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores. But don’t fall for any smokescreens–Ryan’s eighth team in Madison might be his most talented yet.
Two senior forwards lead the way. Marcus Landry, last year’s Big Ten Tournament MOP, is a classic tweener inside, but appears ready to command the respect of opposing defenses. To avoid another disappointing postseason exit, Landry must take control at those times he previously shied away. His repertoire has expanded each season and his defense on opposing big men is still superb. Landry was a preseason all-league selection after averaging 12 points and 5 boards in conference games a year ago.
The tough-nosed, jack-of-all-trades Joe Krabbenhoft could be the team’s poster child. The South Dakota native is the team’s returning leader in assists and has been particularly effective on the defensive glass in his three seasons, reinforcing another trademark of Ryan’s recent Big Ten teams. If Krabby can continue to stroke the outside shot like he has in the preseason, the Badgers will be very formidable.
Arguably the most talented returnee is junior point guard Trevon Hughes, who struggled at times down the stretch last season dealing with an ankle injury. When completely healthy, Hughes is completely capable of taking over a game (ask Kansas State). If the Badgers are to return to 30-win status, it will be due to Hughes’ health, improved shot selection and an increased focus on distributing the ball.
Regardless of Hughes’ ankle, freshman Jordan Taylor has already forced himself into the rotation as the backup lead guard. He might look like Carlton Banks, but the kid is a chiseled 6’1″ and as prepared to play as any Wisconsin newcomer in recent memory. The team may even briefly go to a three-guard look to get Taylor, Hughes and junior Jason Bohannon on the floor together. Look for Bohannon to surprise people with his scoring ability this year as he steps into a full-time starting role. Known primarily as a three-point threat, Bohannon possesses an underrated ability to get into the lane and knock down runners. He and Landry should be the most consistent scorers.
Help in the post will come from a combination of players. Sophomores Keaton Nankivil and Jon Leuer have each made a case for themselves being the team’s fifth starter, though Nankivil (6’8″, 240) probably has a slight edge. Leuer is best known for his 25-point explosion versus Michigan that included hitting 5-of-5 from long distance. After hitting the weight room this offseason, the aggressive Leuer should be near the rim more often.
The eighth player in regular rotation will probably be cerebral sophomore swingman Tim Jarmusz. Slender, long-armed frosh Rob Wilson from Cleveland could be a sleeper, as some anticipate he can become a defensive replacement for Michael Flowers. Any remaining minutes will probably filled early by senior walk-on Kevin Gullikson or center J.P. Gavinski. The freshman big men (Jared Berggren and Ian Markolf) still need more seasoning on defense. The large first-year class is completed by late signee Ryan Evans. Expect one freshman to redshirt.
Wisconsin’s non-conference schedule is no cakewalk. Connecticut or Miami is a likely opponent in the Paradise Jam tournament and the Badgers go on the road to face Marquette and Virginia Tech. The team gets some home cooking for this year’s Texas tilt. Therefore, the team should be well-prepared for a conference slate that includes only one game apiece versus Michigan State and Ohio State. With continued health, another Big Ten title run will be within reach.