Thoughts On the Wisconsin Badgers: Levels of Importance
There are few things that I enjoy more than reading about Wisconsin during the preseason. As seems to be the case every year, the Badgers are picked by most people to finish about fifth in the Big Ten. And on paper, this is the projection that they deserve. Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Illinois are all objectively better, particularly given that Wisconsin lost both of its longtime starting guards to graduation. But here’s the fun thing about the Badgers–though they look to be about the fifth or sixth best team in the league nearly every year, I can always virtually guarantee that they’ll finish higher than they’re projected to. Bo Ryan’s been dancing around the top of the league for years now and somehow his teams always manage to be sneaky-good. What’s wonderful about this is that by the end of the year the team always seems to end up with all of the benefits of being a top-tier team, but it comes with all of the fun that accompanies an underdog's journey. Truly, Wisconsin seasons bring the best of both worlds, and that’s a big reason that it’s so much fun to follow the Badgers.
As usual, I’m not going to give an extensive breakdown on Wisconsin, since most people reading this know the team as well as, if not infinitely better than I do. You know from above how I expect the team to perform–it will finish top three in the Big Ten, make another tournament appearance, and be a consistently tough out for opponents. As to my thoughts on individual players, I could go on for pages and pages about what I think (well, except for the freshmen, who like everyone else, I know little about at this point). But instead, I’m just going to rank the players according to how important I think they will be to the success of the team this year. It’s not a ranking of who I think the best players are (thought that obviously plays into it), but merely how important each player will be with regard to creating a winning season. Of course, this will all change the moment the first guy blows out an ACL, but for now, here are my rankings:
1) Jon Leuer: I challenge anyone to dispute that Leuer is the most important guy on this team. He’s a candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year. This summer, Villanova coach Jay Wright essentially called him the most pleasant surprise on the USA Basketball select team, which as the name of the team would imply, had some pretty big names. And I’m pretty sure that I heard or read an interview with Bo Ryan where he uncharacteristically said that this was Leuer’s team this year. My only concern? Let’s hope that guys don’t fall into the trap of standing around and watching Leuer operate on the offensive end, as tended to happen last year prior to his injury.
2) Jordan Taylor: The point guard is always important, and Taylor is even more important than the average point guard for two reasons. First, he’s the most steady player on the Badger roster. Taylor may not be the best point guard that Bo Ryan has had at Wisconsin, but he’s perhaps the most solid, reliable point guard that he’s had. Second, with the backcourt exceedingly thin this year, the drop off from Taylor to whomever is backing him up (the early favorite seems to be Josh Gasser, just a freshman) will be huge.
3) Ryan Evans: Evans is important because the way that he plays can provide a spark for the Badgers. While his basketball skills are still developing, his athleticism and work ethic are unmatched, something Bo Ryan seems more than happy to bring up any time Evans’ name is mentioned in an interview. Evans may become a slight victim of his own success this year, with his rapid improvement from a raw prospect two years ago giving fans inflated expectations. I’m actually not expecting huge stats from him this year. But stats are not what Evans is about, and his impact on his teammates from the hard work and excitement that he brings to the court are what make him important to this team.
4) Tim Jarmusz: I’ll admit that I’m not one of those guys that sings the praises of Jarmusz, talks about his great position on defense, and thinks that only well-educated basketball fans can appreciate what he brings to the table. I get down on his poor shooting and lack of athleticism as much as (and perhaps more) the next guy. But Jarmusz is important because he a) tends not to make glaring errors and b) is versatile. The versatility is going to be a big deal on a team that returns only two other experienced scholarship guards. Jarmusz isn’t going to bring a ton to the table, but he’s not going to take much off of it, either. And with the roster that Wisconsin has this year, it needs a guy like that.
5) Josh Gasser/Ben Brust: Jordan Taylor, Rob Wilson and Tim Jarmusz. That’s two guards and one quasi-guard. Only one of them can play point guard. That’s what Wisconsin has returning in the backcourt. One of the freshmen is going to have to step up and provide some quality minutes at both guard spots in order for this team to flourish. Much like Jarmusz, whoever takes this role (to my surprise, the early favorite appears to be Gasser) won’t necessarily be among the best players on the team, but he will need to fill an important roster hole. So one of these guys will be remarkably important this year, while the other will likely slide way down on the importance scale until next year.
6) Keaton Nankivil: Nankivil is important because when he’s on his game, it makes the Badgers tough to stop. I’ve come to accept that Nankivil is not a guy that’s going to be stellar every night. But if he’s having one of those nights where he’s knocking down bizarre three-point shots, muscling guys off the blocks on defense, and generally taking pressure off of his more consistent teammates, the odds of a Badger win are pretty good.
7) Rob Wilson: Wilson is the guy on the team that tends to make clutch plays. If he was a bit more consistent, he’d be higher on the list. As it stands, the team is loaded at the forward spot and fairly thin at guard. Seeing as Wilson is one of only two returning scholarship players whose primary position is guard, you’d kind of like to make sure that he’s around.
8) Mike Bruesewitz: Some guys bring instant offense. Bruesewitz brings instant rebounding. He’s got a nose for the ball that no one else on the team has. He’ll bring energy off the bench, but a different type of energy than Ryan Evans. If this list was about pure basketball ability, he’d be higher up. As it’s simply about importance to the team, and the Badgers have an insanely deep frontcourt, I have to drop Bruesewitz in the rankings. If one of the guards goes down with an injury this year, the team will change fairly significantly. If one of the six capable forwards on the team is out for extended time, there are other guys who can step in.
9) Jared Berggren: I’m wary of all that I’ve read about people loving Jared Berggren’s game during the two open preseason scrimmages. After all, I developed a borderline irrational love of Berggren’s game two years ago when I saw him play 10 minutes in a preseason scrimmage before he redshirted for the year. Since then, I have barely seen him. As my notes about my previous super-brief viewing would imply, I suspect that Berggren has the talent to hang in the Big Ten. The question is whether he’s improved enough to steal some minutes from Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil, Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz and Tim Jarmusz. That’s a lot of guys to jump over, and while Berggren is definitely capable of making that jump, he’ll have to do it before I consider him more important.
10) Duje Dukan: Based solely on what I’d read prior to the new freshmen coming to campus, Dukan was the new guy I was most excited to see in a Badger uniform. Word has it that he needs to bulk up a bit before being totally ready for college ball. This year he looks to be either stuck behind a massive frontcourt logjam or a candidate for a redshirt. Either way, don’t look for Dukan to see much time on the floor for now.
11) Wquinton Smith: Smith is a walk-on who is short in stature, so Wisconsin’s in trouble if he has to take on a role of importance. However, rumor has it that Smith, in addition to being able to bench press obscene amounts of weight, would be the most likely walk-on to see the floor in an emergency situation. But that’s exactly what it would be–an emergency.
12) Evan Anderson: I’m not sure what to make of Anderson just yet. On one hand, reports about his work ethic and progress from Wisconsin’s staff have been glowingly positive. On the other hand, he’s a strong 6'10" guy that averaged a mere 10 points and 6 rebounds per game during his senior year of high school while playing in one of the weakest regions of the state. Reports are that he’s considering redshirting. As you’ve seen above, with the depth in the Badger frontcourt and Anderson’s likely need to develop a bit, he’d be wise to do just that.
13) Brett Valentyn: It’s not every day that you see a walk-on like Valentyn take a redshirt year, so that would imply that he’s got a bit more value than the average walk-on. I still don’t plan on him seeing the floor this year, no matter how many points he puts up in a scrimmage.
14) J.P. Gavinski: I don’t think that anyone, perhaps not even Gavinski himself, would argue that J.P. Gavinski has been a particularly helpful player for the Badgers over his five years with the team. That said, I’ve gotten the sense from articles over the years that Gavinski is well-liked on the team and has great enthusiasm about being a Badger. You’d like everyone on your team to be able to contribute on the court. However, if there’s a guy that can’t, it’s nice that he’s at least able to keep things positive and loose in the locker room.
15) Dan Fahey/J.D. Wise: For all I know, Dan Fahey and J.D. Wise may very well be more talented than fellow walk-ons Wquinton Smith and Brett Valentyn. It doesn’t really matter, though, because as walk-ons, none of them are likely to ever see meaningful time on the floor. So as the younger, less well-known pair of walk-ons, Fahey and Wise round out the final level of importance.
We’ll start to get a read on what actual team roles are on Saturday night when Wisconsin hosts UW-LaCrosse in the Badgers' first exhibition game. Until then, the above should give some guidance as to what I think the rotation is going to look like. Bo Ryan’s not a slave to position labels, though, so don’t be surprised if he throws some strangely large lineups out as the season gets underway.