In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Wisconsin.
1. Wednesday's topic was Kansas, and the topic within the topic was the remarkable consistency the Jayhawks have shown -- what with eight straight Big 12 titles and counting -- under coach Bill Self. At this point, it's impossible to talk about the current state of the Jayhawks and not talk about that consistency.
It's the same deal with Wisconsin.
Sure, the Badgers haven't won a national title under Bo Ryan, and they haven't approached KU's elite status. But the sheer year-in-year-out success of Wisconsin is almost equally noteworthy. Since Ryan became the coach at Wisconsin in 2001, none of his teams has finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten. That's an oft-quoted statistic in these parts, but for good reason: It's impressive. There have been some so-so years in the mix, recordwise, but his teams have never failed to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Here are some less crude measures, via Ken Pomeroy -- a list of Wisconsin's overall adjusted efficiency ranks at the end of each season since 2003:
2012: No. 5
2011: No. 7
2010: No. 9
2009: No. 29
2008: No. 5
2007: No. 8
2006: No. 48
2005: No. 16
2004: No. 5
2003: No. 11
Whatever you think of KenPom statistics (they inform a great deal of my work, but are hardly infallible, as Wisconsin's 2012 ranking proved), taken as a whole, that is a remarkably consistent record of success. You know a few things about the Badgers almost regardless of personnel: They'll play very slow, possession-grinding basketball; they'll defend; and they'll be one of the best three or four teams in the Big Ten. At this point, it's a guarantee.
2. Which is good (if not particularly surprising) news for Wisconsin fans because, in 2012-13, the Badgers are going to be replacing one of their most important players in recent memory: point guard Jordan Taylor.
Because Taylor wasn't absolutely brilliant (more like merely very very good) in his senior season, it might be easy to forget just how good he was throughout his entire career. But he was as efficient as any guard of the past decade as a junior, when he often seemed to carry Wisconsin's offense on his back. For the first time in (essentially) three years, UW is going to be running its offense without Taylor at the helm. Given his propensity for credulity-defying efficiency, his knack for taking those 35-second shot clocks to the brink just before delivering, this is going to require a major adjustment on the Badgers' part.
Wisconsin won't have a dominant, turnover-averse ball handler like Taylor in the lineup next season. What it will have are guards Josh Gasser and Ben Brust, both of whom emerged as more than capable players last season. Gasser is a lights-out shooter who made 45.2 percent of his 3s last season, and Brust provided solid perimeter presence and defended well without fouling. Neither has Taylor's talent level, but, in Wisconsin's system, they should be plenty capable in their own styles.
3. However, for the first time since Taylor became a star, Wisconsin's real strength won't necessarily be in its backcourt. In 2012, the nexus of the Badgers' strength -- which will still very much rely on its defense -- will come from the frontcourt and on the wings.
It will start with forward Jared Berggren, who developed into a very consistent post and midrange presence in 2012. Forward Ryan Evans is a long and athletic defensive specialist who rebounds exceptionally well on the defensive end. Small forward Mike Bruesewitz is a well-rounded glue guy who does a bit of everything well.
And then there's the X factor: freshman small forward Sam Dekker.
With rare exceptions (Devin Harris comes to mind) Wisconsin isn't known for bringing in high-impact freshmen -- five-star players, guys with clear NBA futures from the moment they step on campus. Dekker is an exception to all of those rules. Ranked No. 4 at his position in the Class of 2012, Dekker is a 6-foot-7 wingman who "has great size and skill for a perimeter player ... is a good athlete and excellent scorer ... can score inside with his back to the basket or facing [and] ... can put the ball on the floor and can knock down the open three," according to ESPN's recruiting experts. By all accounts, he is a matchup nightmare, and he should prove exciting to watch.
With all due respect, these are not the sorts of things we typically say about Wisconsin basketball players. Typically, Wisconsin's success is borne of experience, consistency, development, and various other unexciting but nonetheless fitting terms. And it works. The system clearly works. Now we get to see whether Dekker can provide an immediate boost of natural skill within that system, and, if he can, whether that can make up for the considerable loss of Taylor.