Every time I speak to someone about the Wisconsin basketball team's season so far, the first thing they say is "Wow." Not only are they 15-0, the best start in 100 years, but the confidence and poise of this team has been very impressive. Along with a Cancun Challenge championship, big wins over St. John's and Florida have caught national attention. A few Sportscenter Top 10 dunks and some up-tempo play (scores in the 80s, 90s and one in the 100s) have raised eyebrows.
Being involved with this program for many years, I have a few theories as to why the Badgers are off to such a hot start.
The Badgers' preseason trip to Canada has been very underrated in the discussion of the team's hot start. The last time the Badgers went on a preseason trip was 2006, when the team went to Italy. Later that season, the team reached the school's first-ever No.1 ranking. In August, the Badgers played five games against some of the top teams in Canada. The Badgers lost their first game against a perennial Canadian power Carlton, but put together four straight wins, with contributions from a variety of players.
I don't think the benefits of this trip can be understated. Several players and coaches remarked on how much the team improved over the course of a trip. This trip gave the Badgers a chance to get comfortable playing together and build chemistry.
The freshmen were able to learn the speed of college ball as well as the practice and game preparation routines early on. Although it depends on the player, it can take a long time to shake the jitters of playing at the college level for a freshman. Simple things like getting to know your teammates, as well as learning the game-day routine, warm-ups and where to sit on the bench can play a big factor for confidence and comfort level on the court.
This trip allowed the Badgers to find their roles and figure out who the vocal leaders would be, especially with significant turnover from last year (a lot of quality minutes to replace). The players were anxious to prove their summer workouts paid dividends. The competition helped set expectations of coaches, and gave them an idea of what lineups work well together. Building chemistry early in the year is a huge advantage. After stringing together a few wins, chemistry and confidence inevitably grow, which has shown on the court.
A very simple explanation as to why the Badgers have been so good this year could primarily be the return of Josh Gasser. Josh is averaging 8.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game so far this year, but his impact out on the floor is exponentially higher than his stats indicate.
When Josh was a true freshman, I played some backup minutes behind him as a fifth-year senior. Even I couldn't help but be blown away by Josh's poise, toughness and quiet confidence. It is extremely rare for a freshman in this program to make a huge impact (although Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have been great so far this year). Josh not only started the whole year for a top team in the country, but he also completed the first triple-double in school history at Northwestern and hit a buzzer-beating game-winning three at Michigan.
Now, as a redshirt junior, Josh has been the steadying force for this Badgers team. He's a fiery competitor, a disciplined team defender and an unselfish teammate. Two of the toughest defenders I had to go against in practice were Michael Flowers and Josh Gasser. Mike was an extremely athletic, pesky defender who would always be a threat to take the ball from you. Josh poses a challenge simply because he is never out of position. He is strong and smart, and he just never gives you an open look.
Offensively, Josh is tough going to the rim (and an 82.5 percent career free throw shooter), a 3-point threat and an outstanding passer. He's played big minutes from early in his career and he's a guy that his younger teammates trust and rally around. When I speak with my former teammate Joe Krabbenhoft about the Badgers, Joe always remarks how he wishes he could have played with Josh. Josh is one of the guys that almost always is picked first in summer pickup games because he always finds a way to win. He's the type of guy that will make plays to energize a team, like a crucial charge, a clutch steal or a cold-blooded three during the season. These are the type of plays Big Ten Championship contenders need during a tough stretch on a random weeknight road game in the middle of the Big Ten season. You can see Josh playing with such emotion on the floor this year. He's clearly happy to be back playing again, and Badger fans are just as happy to watch him play.
The most visible reason the Badgers hot start has been their offensive proficiency. This team has scored in transition early and often, and the ball movement in half court sets has been terrific. The main difference between this team and those of the past is the number of natural scorers and playmakers. Teams over the past couple years may not have had as many lethal, confident or natural scorers, but they were exceptionally gritty, tough and unselfish. These teams helped laid the groundwork for the success of this year's team. But because of significant turnover since last year, there have been opportunities opened for some very talented offensive players.
At basically any time, the Badgers have five players on the floor that can "go rogue," so to speak, and create a shot for themselves or their teammates, especially late in the shot clock. Sam Dekker is a once-in-a-decade sort of talent, who will be a first-round draft pick some day. I think if Gordon Hayward can be an above-average starting shooting guard in the NBA, there's no doubt in my mind Sam can too. Ben Brust has been lethal as ever from distance, and Traevon Jackson (although didn't have his best game against Iowa) is extremely tough to stop penetrating or hitting his pull-up jumper. Ben and Trae have also been tremendous in drive-and-kick situations, making the extra pass, and finding their teammates for open looks. It seems crazy as a senior, but Ben has almost been underrated with the well-publicized developments of Dekker, Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes.
Frank Kaminsky's improvement has been the most documented this year. Even in short spurts the past two years, Frank's talent was obvious. His ability to handle the ball and pass like a guard really opens up this offense. In addition to Josh, three other guys, who did not play last season, have become "x-factors": Duje Dukan, Bronson Koenig and Hayes. Duje has been a valuable scout team member for three years. As is the case with Coach Ryan's teams, guys get better as they progress through their careers. I think a big reason for this is the players on the scout team (often walk-ons and underclassmen) get a chance to compete in game-like situations against the first-team players at full-speed nearly every day. Duje has improved dramatically over the years. He has a guard skillset in a 6-9 frame, and he's playing with a ton of confidence (i.e. 15 points in 21 minutes vs. St. John's; 6 points and 7 rebounds vs. Iowa).
Bronson and Nigel have looked like veterans so far. Bronson's a dynamic playmaker with elite court vision. Nigel is physical and rugged, but is creative around the rim and has a high basketball IQ (very apparent at Northwestern). Some of the Badgers most reliable possessions have been post-ups for Nigel. As is the case with players lacking experience, there will be growing pains, but they've shown the ability to compete at a very high level. The ball movement and player movement of this team has been a treat to watch. If this team continues this fluid offense and shoots with confidence, they could be poised to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Even given the unbeaten streak to start the season and a 2-0 conference record, a Big Ten title or a Final Four are far from a given. The defense needs to improve. Coach Ryan's teams always improve defensively as the year goes on. Handling certain screening situations and pick-and-rolls are worked on in practice every day, and there should be fewer defensive lapses with this experience. However, frontcourt defense and depth will probably be issues throughout the season.
Furthermore, the Big Ten season is a grind. Road games, no matter who the opponent is, are always difficult. However, the Badgers do appear to have a scheduling advantage this year. The Badgers only play Michigan State and Ohio State once this year, and both games are at home. From experience, avoiding playing those teams on their home floors is very beneficial. Whatever happens this season, the Badgers have been a lot of fun to watch so far, and that should continue.
In a word, wow.