Yes I know, the season isn’t officially over for the Wisconsin men’s basketball team, but we’ve seen enough to know that not much will change with an extra NCAA tournament or NIT game. Even though this season was a disappointment overall, there were some positives. With potentially the entire roster returning for next season, there is reason to believe next year could be special.
I’m starting with the ugly because after the finish to the season, I really want to close this article with something positive. There are really only two things that fall under this category for me: free throw shooting and finishing at the rim. There were plenty of other issues, but these are two things that can be easily fixed and realistically shouldn’t be issues to begin with.
I’ll start with the free throw woes. As a team, Wisconsin shot 67% from the line for the season. That’s an abysmal number plain and simple. If you are scoring a lot through your normal offense then it’s not as big of a deal but when your margin for error is already small, you can’t afford to miss freebies. In two of their losses in the second half of conference play, making even 75% of their free throws would have won them the game. Those wins would have pushed Wisconsin to 7th in the conference instead of 11th.
The scary thing is the season average could have been considerably worse if it weren’t for major improvements in the last 5 games. With free throws not being the issue in losses against Michigan and Purdue, the inability to finish in the paint can be swapped in. Against Purdue they at least had the excuse of a 7’3″ giant roaming the paint defensively. For every other matchup, the consistent struggles to convert layups were alarming.
The main post players for Wisconsin, Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl, both shot under 50% from the field on the season. Crowl took and made some triples so his number isn’t as concerning, but Wahl struggled to find his finishing ability after the ankle injury. For a player that scores almost all of his points in or around the paint, shooting 42% on the season is not going to cut it. It looked as though both players struggled with contact and forced up shots just to try and be involved in the offense.
The Badgers offense was best when the ball was moving around and screens were being used to set up back door cuts or mismatches. Far too often it seemed like Bucky relied on individual post play to score and as we saw, it wasn’t overly successful. The good thing is these are issues that can be improved but we’ll have to wait 7 months to see it.
The last thing I have to mention is lack of shot creation. I can’t recall a Badger team that didn’t have a single player that could consistently create their own shot. Freshman Connor Essegian got better there as the season went along, but with the game on the line or the shot clock running down, it was mostly Hepburn. As much as I appreciate what Chucky does on the court, taking a player 1 on 1 off the dribble isn’t his strength. He lacks the speed or size to consistently get good looks. Most of his shots are fadeaways (which he can make) or awkward attempts around the rim.
Individual improvement could go a long ways to help this issue heading into the 2023/24 season. The lack of top tier athletes will always be an issue at Wisconsin but being able to create space is something you can learn. Time in the weight room will go a long way as playing through contact seemed to be a consistent issue throughout the season.
This list could go on forever but I’ll focus on two major areas of concern. Rebounding and depth were major issues this year. I put them under the bad category instead of ugly because they sort of go hand in hand and they aren’t things that can be easily fixed. Both were personnel issues which is more unfortunate than ugly in my eyes. Sure, we would have loved to see Gard add size through the transfer portal but attempts there fell short.
The Badgers averaged a tick over 31 rebounds per game which put them towards the bottom in all of college basketball. Nobody averaged 7 rebounds a game individually and only two players were over 3.6 rebound per game. Yes size was an issue, but team rebounding also wasn’t great. The fact the roster lacked high level athletes was more evident this year with Johnny Davis covering up a lot of those issues last year.
The depth, or lack there of, was also problematic this year. The rotation really only went reliably 7 deep in B1G play. Even with it expanding to 8 with Kamari McGee finding a groove, the rotation was still abysmal. It shouldn’t be a shock that depth struggled after the team lost 2 transfers and a player to the NBA draft last season, but I wasn’t expecting this bad.
Most seasons, the lack of depth wouldn’t be as big of a factor but with so many starters struggling with consistency, Gard had to turn to the bench just for some energy. The bench may have brought more defensive pressure and intensity, but the scoring was virtually non-existent with that group. I expect Greg Gard to focus on a couple key transfer portal targets this offseason that should help alleviate both of these issues.
It may be hard to believe, but some good did come out of this season. For starters, Connor Essegian made an immediate impact as a true freshman. That’s not something we see happen very often at Wisconsin. He proved to be a great shooter early on and found ways to score off the dribble as the season went along. His ability to evolve and improve his offensive game over the course of the season is a great sign. He has a high basketball IQ while bringing a ton of energy and passion as well.
Even though the search for portal help last season was a slight letdown, Gard bringing in Max Klesmit was a huge plus. His offense was hit or miss but he always brought the defensive pressure and grit that the Badger lost when Brad Davison graduated. It’s hard for someone new to the program to step in and be a leader but I expect him to take over that role next season. If he can be more confident on offense, he should have a major impact next year. He may be the best finisher at the rim on the team.
Finally, we saw some potential from young players outside of Essegian. McGee, Ilver and Linsdey all showed promise, albeit in limited time. Kamari really started to come into his own towards the end of the season but he admitted it took him time to get up to speed with the switch to B1G play.
Markus Ilver didn’t get many minutes as the season moved along, but he showed some promise earlier in the year. The fact he’s a willing shooting is a huge plus. At 6’8″, if he can get a bit stronger to help on defense, his ability to work inside and outside on offense could make him a weapon. As long as he can hang defensively, he should see the court much more often next year.
Finally, Isaac Lindsey showed signs of being a reliable role player. Much like Ilver, it was his defense that kept him from seeing the court more. He’s a solid shooter and has the length at the guard position to get his shot up over smaller defenders. He’s limited athletically but in the right rotations, he can be a solid piece.
I know the fanbase was frustrated with how this season went, understandably so. I have no problems including myself in that, but I try to see the bright spots. I think this team has a lot of promise heading into next season. Typically when this program brings back a full roster, or close to it, they perform very well. If Tyler Wahl returns for another season, the ceiling raises even more.
Greg Gard needs to find some help in the transfer portal, that isn’t debatable. However, I think individual improvements from the players currently on the roster would go a long way and aren’t crazy to expect. Bringing in another big man along with some athleticism and scoring could take this program to the next level. I feel very good about where this program is at and I’d be very surprised if the Badgers don’t end up with a top 4 finish in the conference next season.