BY PETER DAHL
This season is championship or bust for the Wisconsin Badgers. National championship.
Big Dumb Idiotic Realigned Conference titles are nice, but this year Bo Ryan’s team should move that over to the “Expectations” column. 2014-15 is all about what happens in March.
Last year’s team went to the Final Four and came up short in the semifinal game, and rightfully so. They were genuinely one of the few elite teams in the nation that ran into a youthful Kentucky team that was just too big, strong, and athletic. Last year’s squad got that far by having a talented group of players, highlighted by a few stars playing together in a system that, despite its limitations, achieved results.
This year’s team returns even stronger. With Ben Brust being the only real loss from last year (a very replaceable loss), the Badgers return a more experienced team. Basically, the Badgers’ system has hit the jackpot, combining their successful style of play with star-power. Just having Sam Dekker would be nice, but they also have one of the most unstoppable offensive weapons in the nation in Frank Kaminsky. Add onto that, last season’s BIG TEN Freshman of the Year sophomore Nigel Hayes and the potential of fellow sophomore Bronson Koenig and you’ve got as talented a team as the Badgers have ever fielded. Even the supporting cast is solid. And it’s not just a collection of talent; it’s a collection of talent with experience playing with each other in an organized system. Dekker and Kaminsky probably could have both gone pro but both of them returned.
So yes, it is in fact about as great a Badger team as you could hope for, and that’s exactly why this year is make or break for them. If Bo Ryan cannot win a National Championship with this team, he is not going to win a National Championship. Wisconsin does not have the recruiting strength to do it, especially while having to battle Marquette for the top in-state recruits. Of the recent five star in-state recruits, Wisconsin has gotten just Dekker, missing out on Vander Blue, Kevon Looney, Henry Ellenson, and possibly Diamond Stone (with Blue and Ellenson both choosing rival Marquette). Wisconsin just does not have the ability to recruit stars on a yearly basis.
So you see now how much an over-achievement this Wisconsin team is? Not only did they hit home runs with Dekker and Kaminsky, but all the rotation guys are solid as well. They’re not trotting out classic Badgers like Bergren and Brusewitz; these are legit ballers. And that’s rare for a program that normally looks more…. Wisconsinny.
I am not convinced the Badgers can make it through March unless Bo Ryan unleashes Dekker and Kaminsky and lets them carry much more weight, so that when the team really needs them, they will be ready to step up. We have seen in the past few years how critical star players are to advancing in the Tournament. The key to last few National Champions has been that their stars were allowed to play like stars.
This is it for the Wisconsin Badgers. If they make good on their potential and win it all this year, then they are suddenly a top program in the nation with increased recruiting influence. If they stumble and fall short of at least the Final Four then they’ll remain a solid program with aspirations of conference titles but no real prospects of winning it all.
Maybe they will not get Mr. Stone, but the pressure they face this year could create a diamond of their own.