Three Wisconsin basketball storylines to pay attention to this offseason

Well, it’s finally here. Following one of the most anti-climactic national championships in recent memory, the college basketball season is over and the annual four months of anxiety between the end of the basketball season and the start of football season has begun.

Despite their disappointing regional semifinal exit to eventual runner-up Butler, the Badgers gave their fans one of the most memorable seasons in recent memory. Once again picked by many to finish in the middle of the pack of what appeared to be a stacked Big Ten field, the Badgers cruised to their 10th straight top-four finish in the conference and 13th straight NCAA tournament appearance.

Along the way, Badger fans witnessed the program’s first ever triple-double when Josh Gasser — a freshman who was only offered a scholarship because of Diamond Taylor’s dismissal from the team in late 2009 — went off for 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists against Northwestern Jan. 23. They also saw perhaps the biggest moment in Kohl Center history when the Badgers knocked off No. 1 and then-undefeated Ohio State Feb. 12 and witnessed Jordan Taylor emerge as the program’s most dynamic player since Devin Harris and go on to be to named a second team All-American.

However, the 2010-11 season is over, and their are plenty of things to discuss concerning next season’s squad. It may seem trivial to speculate about challenges facing next year’s team because of the consistently good groups Bo Ryan seems to put on the floor every season, but hey, where’s the fun in that? Here are a few storylines Badger fans should expect to dominate the headlines until Wisconsin takes the court again in November:

Questions about frontcourt turnover

Jon Leuer was one of the most skilled big men Bo Ryan has ever coached. He faded down the stretch and in the NCAA tournament, but he still led the team in scoring and rebounding. His combination of inside and outside scoring ability was nearly impossible to stop when he was on. Leuer scored in double-digits in every game last season but the last against Butler, when Brad Stevens and a smart and stingy Butler defense held him to only three points on 1-of-12 shooting. Leuer will graduate next month, so the Badgers will need to find someone else to compliment Taylor’s offensive production.

Keaton Nankivil led the team in blocked shots, was second in rebounding and third in scoring. He anchored Wisconsin’s defense and rarely allowed easy baskets despite the fact he often guarded the opposing team’s best frontcourt player. Nankivil wasn’t really a big stat sheet guy, but his leadership and defensive presence will be missed.

The Badgers return only one player who is big enough to survive against the likes of Trevor Mbakwe and Jared Sullinger, who apparently will be back at Ohio State next season. I’m referring, of course, to sophomore center Jared Berggren. Aside from Taylor, Berggren might be the most important player for the Badgers next season. I’m not saying he needs to replace Leuer’s offensive production, but if he can provide consistently solid defense and stay out of foul trouble, it would go a long way for Wisconsin in 2011-12.

Two other players could help replace Leuer and Nankivil, but neither is a true post player. Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz are both about the same size — 6-feet-6 and 210-220 pounds — and were among the first players off the bench for the Badgers last season, but that kind of size might not hold up against some of the bigger teams in the Big Ten. Bruesewitz in particular tends to play bigger than his listed size, so he’ll probably start at power forward for the Badgers. But I’m not so sure that’s the best position for him, especially considering the ability to drive to the hoop he showed during the latter part of the season.

Beyond those two, the Badgers have little frontcourt experience. Freshman center Evan Anderson (who redshirted for the 2010-11 season) and newcomers Jared Uthoff (power forward) and Frank Kaminsky (center) will have a chance to compete for minutes off the bench.

Who will emerge as a secondary scoring option?

As I mentioned above, Wisconsin’s first and third leading scorers from last season will graduate in a few weeks. Jordan Taylor will be back and, barring an injury, will be dynamic as ever. However, Wisconsin’s second leading returning scorer is Gasser, who averaged only 5.9 points per game and was rather inconsistent offensively throughout the season. Clearly, other Badgers will need to step up to replace the 28-combined-points-per-game-hole left by the Leuer and Nankivil.

Despite his uneven season, Gasser seems like a good candidate to do just that. He never looked hesitant or indecisive as a freshman, even when his jumper wasn’t falling during the first part of the season. Gasser found ways to contribute even when very few plays were run for him, a skill that Bo Ryan will no doubt value next season when Jordan Taylor will likely dominate the attention of opposing defenses.

Bruesewitz could also help replace the offensive production of Leuer and Nankivil. The newly-shaved and briefly cornrow’d redhead excelled during the NCAA tournament, averaging nearly nine points per game in Wisconsin’s three tournament games while playing just over 26 minutes per game. Down the stretch, Brueser showed an ability to get to the rim, something that will compliment his much-improved jumper next season.

If Evans’ jumper and footwork continue to improve, he could also help the Badgers on offense next season too. The sophomore forward averaged only 2.8 points per game last season, but scored 10 and 11 points in Wisconsin’s two games against Purdue.

Could Jordan Taylor make a run at the Naismith Award?

Of the twelve players named to the first and second All-America teams, only Taylor and Sullinger are locks to return for another season of college basketball. The junior point guard has improved in each of his three seasons with the Badgers, so it’s not difficult to expect big things from Taylor in his senior year.

Taylor averaged 18.1 points, 4.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds last season. He scored at least 20 points in 15 games and had thirty or more on two occasions. He’ll probably take more shots with Leuer and Nankivil out of the picture, but he’ll also receive more attention from defenses. Sometimes, it seems like Taylor gets the ball and tries to score without even looking for open teammates, so it will be interesting to see how he handles the extra pressure.

On paper, his biggest competition for the Naismith might be from Sullinger. The hulking freshman was phenomenal in his first season of college basketball, averaging 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. His defensive game is still a work in progress, but he’ll likely improve his offensive numbers next season with the departure of Jon Diebler and David Lighty. He’ll also benefit from an increase in minutes for fellow freshman Aaron Craft, one of the better distributors in the conference last season.

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