- Wisconsin has a chance to make a third Final Four in four seasons, but to do so, it will need senior Nigel Hayes to become a bona fide star.
Using our off-season Power Rankings as a guide, SI.com is asking three questions for each top-10 team in the country. After looking at No. 10 Xavier, No. 9 Arizona and No. 8 Virginia, here is No. 7 Wisconsin.
Can Nigel Hayes bounce back?
In an alternate reality, Hayes could be in the NBA right now. The 6' 8" forward entered his junior season with the possibility of declaring early for the draft, but he instead regressed across the board. As a result, he returns to Madison for his final year of eligibility. Hayes was an important role player on both of Wisconsin’s recent Final Four teams, but he did not develop into the star at the center of the offense that most fans had expected. Still, given his combination of perimeter skills and touch and footwork around the basket, Hayes is equipped to be one of the best players in the Big Ten. For the Badgers to reach their third Final Four in four seasons, they’ll need Hayes to be that player, picking back up on the trajectory he set for himself during his first two seasons in Madison. If that is indeed the case, he’ll hear his name called at the NBA draft in 2017.
Is experience a championship trait?
Last season, senior Ryan Arcidiacono and juniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins led Villanova in minutes. The Badgers will try to follow the Wildcats’ footsteps with four seniors—Hayes, guards Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter and forward Vitto Brown—in their starting five. Joining them in the lineup will be sophomore center Ethan Happ, who just might have the highest ceiling of anyone on the roster. While Happ will be asked to take on a larger scoring role this season, the seniors are back for one more run at a championship. Hayes and Koenig were key players on Wisconsin’s consecutive Final Four teams that were led by Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker and will now be asked to be the leaders of the program’s next championship contender. It’s exceedingly rare for players to make three trips to the Final Four during their college careers. Hayes, Koenig, Showalter and Brown have a realistic chance at that honor this year.
Will the youngsters finally break through in Madison?
One of the hallmarks of Bo Ryan’s tenure with Wisconsin was that freshmen spent most of their season sitting on the bench. It took a rare talent, such as Devin Harris in 2001–02, to log significant minutes as a freshman with Ryan at the helm. Longtime Ryan assistant and Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard isn’t thought to have such a rigid approach with his freshmen, and that’s good news for a Wisconsin team that got just 22.6% of its minutes from its bench last year, which ranked 340th in the country. Redshirt freshman Brevin Pritzl, a four-star shooting guard coming out of high school, will have a key role as a shooter for the Badgers, giving the team its best pure outside threat since Ben Brust during its Final Four run in the 2013–14 season. Sophomore Andy Van Vliet, a 6' 11" stretch forward from Belgium, is ready for his debut after being ineligible last year due to missing an NCAA enrollment deadline. He, too, adds the sort of shooting punch the Badgers lacked last year. With Pritzl and Van Vliet in the fold, the Badgers should get more contributions from underclassmen than has been typical to see in Madison.