With all due respect to the giant-killing University of Wisconsin football team, the resurgent men’s hockey team and the highly ranked women’s volleyball and hockey teams, the team Badgers fans most want to see will open its season Friday night.
The UW men’s basketball team that will face Central Arkansas at the Kohl Center has three potential All-Big Ten Conference players in Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ, great experience with its top nine scorers returning, better depth than it has had since 2006-07 and a coach in Greg Gard who already has proved his mettle after taking over on the fly last season.
It also has expectations. Off-the-charts expectations.
Some think the ninth-ranked Badgers will be burdened by those expectations. However, those people don’t fully understand the culture that has developed within the program while going to two Final Fours and a Sweet 16 in the past three NCAA tournaments.
“I think everybody knows, from what we’ve said, that our goal is to win the national championship,” Koenig said. “No one’s expectations will be higher than ours.”
Those expectations are warranted this season. Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and defending NCAA champion Villanova are considered the teams to beat. UW is solidly in the next tier with Arizona, Indiana, Louisville, North Carolina, Michigan State, Oregon, Purdue, Virginia and Xavier.
But whether the lofty expectations come from the outside or the inside, can UW match them?
This much we know: The Badgers have become adept at embracing high expectations without losing sight of the fact that the season is a lengthy process that is best attacked by staying in the moment.
Should the Badgers need a reminder, they have the past two seasons to draw upon. During that time, the starters — seniors Koenig, Hayes, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter, and Happ, a redshirt sophomore — gained experience managing both high expectations and failed expectations.
In 2014-15, the Badgers were coming off a Final Four run and opened the season ranked No. 3 after losing only Ben Brust from their eight-man rotation. Led by seniors Frank Kaminsky, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan and junior Sam Dekker, UW spent the entire season in the top 10, went 36-4 and lost to Duke in the NCAA final.
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This year’s seniors were sophomores then, with Koenig and Hayes playing major roles.
“They approached the ’14-’15 season the same way they approached ’13-’14,” Gard said. “They didn’t skip any steps in the process. They knew they were going to be pretty good. They knew expectations were high.
“But they also knew they couldn’t get ahead of themselves, that if you start skipping steps in the process and don’t take care of things in preparation and maturity and improvement in November or December or January, it’s irrelevant what happens in March. That group had a very mature approach to that process.
“I think this group dynamically is made up a little bit differently. There’s not a Kaminsky there. That group was such a special (one). It was almost a trifecta of terrific talent, terrific maturity but also all of them from a basketball IQ standpoint understood what needed to be done. Talk about a player-coached team, there were a lot of times we sat in the huddle and it was Jackson and Gasser and Kaminsky doing most of the talking. That’s what experience can do for you. It grabs that ownership and the leadership role and really rolls with it.”
On the flip side, should this UW team experience a rough stretch or two, it can simply look back to last season. The Badgers struggled in the 12 games prior to coach Bo Ryan’s surprise retirement and for several weeks after Gard took over. But after opening Big Ten play with a 1-4 record and seeing their record fall to 9-9, they regrouped to finish 12-6 in the Big Ten, 22-13 overall and would have been in the Elite Eight if not for an inexplicable, last-minute collapse against Notre Dame.
If anything, failing to meet expectations seemed to fuel that team’s fire.
“I think one thing that will help this group is what they went through last year and how they had to dig themselves out from a hole and mature and grow,” Gard said. “They understood, or through the year understood, how important this process and the everyday aspect is to it and they’ve taken the same approach. They’ve practiced pretty well, other than maybe a blip here or there when they haven’t been as consistent.
“But it helps when you have a mature group, when you have four seniors leading the way. Your best-coached teams are always your player-coached teams and this group has taken on the leadership and ownership of that locker room.”
UW must reduce its turnovers and tighten up its defense, but preseason practices indicated that those are doable for a team with four seniors who look primed for the best season of their careers, one of the nation’s top big men in Happ and a group of sophomores who have improved their strength and skills.
If UW follows its blueprint for dealing with expectations, there is no telling where this season could end up.