Sean Saint Jacques: What are your thoughts on the Wisconsin Badgers heading into this season?
Sam Brief: Fresh off a 25-6 regular season resulting in their first Final Four appearance since 2000, the Badgers are more confident than ever. The team returns seven of its top eight producers from the 2013-14 roster, including two legitimate Naismith College Player of the Year candidates in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Losing only 3-point specialist Ben Brust to graduation, the Badgers also return last year's freshmen standouts: Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, who have both developed nicely in Bo Ryan's system. And the Badgers have no lack of veteran leadership. Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, Kaminsky and Dekker combine for 11 years of experience playing at Wisconsin. Match all that talent and experience with one of the nation's most respected coaches in Bo Ryan, and Madison is already counting down the days until basketball season begins.
SSJ: Can you talk about key additions and subtractions that could positively or negatively affect Wisconsin?
SB: Brust, the Badgers' all-time leading 3-point shooter, is the only major piece that the Badgers lost from last year's roster, but Koenig displayed flashes of greatness in last year's Final Four and should be able to step in and produce in the hole left by Brust. The Badgers' experienced backcourt of Jackson and Gasser will compensate for any of Koenig's growing pains. Bo Ryan and his staff added a pair three-star recruits in forward Ethan Happ from Rockridge (IL) High School, who has drawn comparisons to Dekker, and Riley Dearring of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Neither is expected to command major playing time, but their additions add depth to an already-loaded roster.
SSJ: What are the strengths of this basketball team?
SB: Bo Ryan's teams have always revolved around defense. But last year's Badgers, who beat three of the No. 1 seeds from last year's NCAA Tournament (Florida, Virginia, Arizona) in 2013, slacked in both departments. They gave up 64.0 points per game, good for just 40th in the country after finishing fourth in the country for team defense in 2012-13. But where they lacked in defense, the Badgers (uncharacteristically) made up for it in offensive production. The Badgers shot 37.3 percent from behind the arc and scored 73.5 points per game after scoring just 65.0 a season ago. So while Wisconsin basketball generally focuses on defense, last year's squad won games on the offensive end. Look for that trend to continue in the upcoming season.
SSJ: Against Marquette, an in-state rival and a team that relies on young guards and veteran inside presence, how will that match up with the Badgers?
SB: The Badgers match up favorably against Marquette. Todd Mayo's departure this offseason leaves a gaping hole for both the Golden Eagles' perimeter shooting and perimeter defense, the first of which is Wisconsin's strength. Look for the Badgers to smother a cold-shooting team in Marquette, while also taking advantage on the offensive glass, as top offensive rebounders Davante Gardner and Chris Otule have both graduated.
SSJ: Do you have any thoughts on the problems that the Golden Eagles and new coach Steve Wojciechowski could pose a battle tested team like Wisconsin?
SB: While the two programs appear to be headed in two different directions, the Golden Eagles could pose a threat to the Badgers in transition. Badger fans will remember numerous late-game lapses with the transition defense last season, notably against Indiana. So if Marquette burns Wisconsin in any facet of the game on December 6, it could be in transition. Make sure to keep an eye on how each team's open-court game develops.
SSJ: Who will be an "X-factor" for the Badgers in this game?
SB: Sophomore forward Nigel Hayes will be counted on as an X-factor for the Badgers in this one. While Hayes does not put up numbers like those of Kaminsky and Dekker, he's a dependable defender who, in a likely low-scoring affair, can win 50-50 balls for the Badgers and make key defensive stands. His mid-range shooting can also help keep Marquette's defense on its toes, as it presents a shift from the traditional Wisconsin reliance on the three-point shot.
SSJ: How would you describe Wisconsin's style of play?
SB: Wisconsin has been described as "the most boring team in America." The Badgers play tight, on-ball defense and take their time while operating the swing offense, often running the shot clock down to its final few ticks. Wisconsin basketball games tend to be sluggish and low-scoring, but the 2013-14 squad did opt to pick up the pace much more than in past years. Still, however, expect a relatively low-tempo game when the Badgers come to Milwaukee in December.
SSJ: We know you love the Badgers, but if you have to give one team an edge who would it be and why?
SB: Wisconsin, with its balance of offensive firepower and defensive knowhow, certainly has the edge here against a team that lost its four leading scorers from 2013: Gardner, Jamil Wilson, Todd Mayo and Jake Thomas. The Badgers will be one of the top teams in America next season and will be favored in most of their games. Expect this matchup to be no different.
My Quick Thoughts
When the Badgers and Golden Eagles meet on December 6, expect Wisconsin to be very tough to beat. They are one of, if not, the most experienced team in the nation. I agree with Sam that Marquette will have a tough time winning this game in the half-court. They will need to get out and run if they want to upset Bo Ryan's group. The fact that most of the starters from a Final Four team are back compared to a team that lost not only its head coach, but most of its scoring the scales for now are in favor of the Badgers. This should be another in a great line of non-conference games for the Big East this season.