1. 19-2 overall. 7-1 in Big Ten play. A Final Four trip last season. A bona fide Wooden Award candidate. At this point, would anything less than a national title be considered a disappointment for the Badgers this season?
I don't think Wisconsin or its fans have quite reached that point yet. Even returning to the Final Four is a tall order, one that most level-headed fans recognize takes a lot of luck in addition to the skill and chemistry that this year's Badgers obviously possess. Getting back there and bowing out again would certainly sting, but falling short of the more immediate team goals would be more disappointing. With a favorable schedule and its best team in years, Wisconsin is primed to win its first Big Ten title since 2007-08 ... that's seven seasons, aka half of Bo Ryan's tenure in Madison. Letting that slip away would be devastating.
2. I told a friend the other night that I think Frank Kaminsky is the ultimate college hoops player, because at 7 feet tall, he can run the point, defend in the post, and shoot a three-ball. What has prompted Frank the Tank's meteoric rise throughout the past few years in Madison after being a three-star recruit, and what do you think his pro prospects are?
Confidence has spurred Kaminsky's rise. The Moose was under-recruited in high school after a late growth spurt and then sat behind Jared Berggren for two seasons in Madison. He has a really good pedigree from his parents, both in his inherent size and athleticism, but it seemed like he still needed to prove to himself that he could play at this level. Most importantly, Kaminsky has had the desire to get better and ability to motivate himself. So after four years of tutelage under Bo, it really isn't too surprising that the mobile 7-footer shooter has developed into a force. Kaminsky had a couple of big-time games off the bench as a sophomore and he's just been building off of that ever since.
As for his NBA prospects, it will come down to fit. He'll be a mid-first rounder that could fill a need for some fringe playoff teams with his shooting. He can and will get stronger to help his post defense, but Kaminsky will probably always be a bit shaky defending today's better stretch-4s when pulled onto the perimeter. If he can prove to be an adequate rebounder against better athletes, he should have a long career.
3. Traevon Jackson got injured in the Rutgers loss, but Bronson Koenig has performed admirably in his absence. Can Koenig take this team far, or will the Badgers need Jackson back for the tournament?
Wisconsin needs Jackson back first and foremost for depth. Right now former walk-on Zak Showalter is the first guard off the bench, which has Koenig averaging 88.5 percent of the available minutes since assuming the starter's role. At some point, the bench is going to bite the Badgers and that likelihood goes way up playing the high-caliber teams you see in the tournament. the other area where Koenig lags behind Jackson is his sense of when to force his way to the hoop for a bucket. It's easier for Jackson with his build, and Koenig has been too passive at times. Luckily Jackson should be back by the end of the regular season.
Obviously UW cannot go as far with just one of the point guards as with both, yet Koenig is arguably the more talented player. He's another one of those guys that will truly blossom now that he no longer has to look over his shoulder and knows it's his team. I think you are seeing that right now, with Koenig more than doubling his scoring average and canning half of his threes since Jackson went down. This is more what Wisconsin fans were expecting when the highly-touted guard chose the Badgers over North Carolina, Duke and Kansas. In addition to his pure-looking stroke, Koenig is also a gee-whiz passer that can run an effective pick-and-roll with the plethora of big men Wisconsin has.
The Badgers can win a conference title with Koenig in charge.
4. At 6-8 and 6-9, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker could present themselves as matchup nightmares for the undersized Hoosiers. What unique challenges will both of these forwards provide for Indiana?
Nigel Hayes has developed into an all-around force, with a nice basketball IQ. He has the athleticism to make plays defensively, and can fill whatever need the Badgers that day. One game he'll hit the boards, then next he'll dish out assists. And his improvements from the three-point line and charity stripe make him a threat to score from anywhere on the court.
Indiana likely will experience two different versions of Dekker, who's fallen back into a mini-slump from long-range. The junior is at his best when he's attacking. However, too often this season the Badgers have gotten one half of aggressive Dekker and one of passive/invisible Dekker. Someone on Twitter characterized him as Maverick from Top Gun, which is hilariously accurate at times. Still, the guy is mega-skilled, excellent in the open court and one of the best finishers in the the league. I always enjoyed watching Dekker and Will Sheehey go at each other, so I guess he'll have to match wits with Troy Williams this year.
5. Rounding out Wisconsin's starting lineup is Josh Gasser. While Gasser doesn't provide as many points as others on the Badgers, he's still the "glue guy" for this lineup. What does Gasser bring to this team to round them out while he's on the floor?
Gasser is the grit, a guy that brings that thorn-in-your-side annoyance to the opposition. He also wields the power of the dagger, similar to the one he dropped at Iowa up against the shot clock with the Hawkeyes creeping within eight in the second half. Gasser's shooting touch has been crucial for a team that graduated Ben Brust and is now without its starting point guard.
Whether it's diving for loose balls, boxing out much bigger players or chasing guys around screens, successful teams have to have guys that do the little things. Gasser has been doing them for five years. His composure and experience are invaluable too, something that his teammates rally around. They don't call him Captain America for nothing.
6. After years of bowing out early, Bo Ryan made his first Final Four last year. Was this a validation of what makes Bo's style of basketball so unique, and how has he implemented his style so effectively in Madison over the past decade and a half?
Was it a validation? I'm unsure. The achievement certainly will make Ryan's resume look better and it was a relief to see that his principles can produce spectacular results in a tournament setting when he has top-notch talent. In other words, his previous Elite Eight was no fluke. But national media and the coaching fraternity already knew how good of a coach Ryan is.
When people think of Bo Ryan's "system" they should be thinking of everything off the court, not the offense or defense the Badgers run on the court. You'll notice he's never drawing up plays on a white board during timeouts like other coaches might. His teams' preparation sets the stage for everything. The reason Ryan gets great results consistently is because he demands total buy-in and no B.S. He takes his role as a teacher of the game seriously and consequently, he recruits players who are willing to be students. The over-emphasis on fundamentals, defense-first, wait-your-turn approach isn't for everyone -- especially at the highest level. But Ryan has been the right fit at the right school in the right state.
7. Football talk: Quiet offseason in Madison, huh? Are fans still in shock over Gary Andersen's exit, or are they excited about Paul Chryst's return to UW?
Even in the future, I don't think Gary Andersen's exit will ever cease to be shocking. Though I was quietly hoping for Pat Narduzzi, most people around here love the thought of a "Wisconsin guy" (yuck, I fear we're turning into Wolverines there) leading the program after the turbulence of the last few years. There's no question Chryst brings a top-flight offensive mind and held onto the most important Andersen assistant (DC Dave Aranda), which is exciting.
Unfortunately, we'd all be a lot more excited about the Paul Chryst era if we had any inkling he could recruit at a high level. The Badgers have been hemorrhaging good recruits after holding onto everyone (and even adding one) during the coaching change. Andersen brought some recruiting juice to town, even if he utterly failed to get on the same page which admissions about which kids could get into school here or not. It's a shame, because the Outback Bowl win over Auburn should provide some good momentum into next year.
8. Football talk part 2: I wrote a Melvin Gordon/Tevin Coleman comparison column back in December. Offer your rebuttal here.
Nah, Melvin's the best. I think both players can be great pros though.
9. Indiana hasn't defeated Wisconsin in Madison since 1998. Does this streak continue this year, and what's your final score prediction for this game?
The streak continues. And as a Badger fan, that stat is one of the most incredible (and most enjoyable) tidbits of my lifetime. To think about where these schools were, respectively, in the 1970s, 80s and even 90s ... well, let's just say we're loving it. Give me Bucky, 76-65, on Tuesday night.
Thanks Phil! The Hoosiers and Badgers tip off from the Kohl Center tonight at 7pm on ESPN.