Now that we have had some time to digest the 2015-16 college basketball season, we decided to do an in-depth review of the Badgers, especially since the entire team minus Jordan Smith is expected back next season.

Today we will take a look at the starters, with the reserves following tomorrow.

Nigel Hayes

Hayes against Siena in his junior season at Wisconsin.
Hayes took his leadership role seriously, guiding  (Rebecca Haas/sconniesportstalk.com).

Preseason expectations: As the number three option on last year’s national finalist team behind the departed Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, the leadership torch was passed to Hayes the second the final buzzer sounded against Duke last April. After enjoying a breakout sophomore season in his first year as a starter, he was a unanimous preseason All-B1G selection and made many national publications’ second and third teams for preseason All-America. He was widely forecasted to enjoy a season that would see him wind up in the top-30 of many NBA Draft boards.

Season statistics: 15.7 PPG*, 5.8 RPG, 3.0 APG*, 1.1 SPG, 2.3 TOPG*, 36.2 MPG*, 37% FG, 29% 3PT.

*indicates team leader

Season recap: Struggles with shot selection and efficiency marred Hayes’ start to the season as the Badgers’ struggled through calamitous non-conference underachievement. A period of uncertainty followed where he took a subtle step back from his role as the fulcrum of the offense, but the losing continued into conference play. However, after he found his stroke in the loss at Northwestern that dropped the Badgers to 9-9 for the season and 1-4 in conference, he reasserted his influence and truly made the team his own, igniting a season-defining seven-game win streak with ubiquitous offensive dominance. Although his revamped leadership and direction of the team continued to be vital towards the end of B1G play and was undoubtedly crucial in the Badgers’ run to the Sweet 16, his jumper entirely deserted him during this stretch. He dipped into a prolonged offensive funk that was underlined by a drought of 20 straight missed three-point attempts and punctuated by a late turnover that precipitated the Badgers’ season ending collapse against Notre Dame, which surely left a sour taste in Nigel’s mouth.

Best game: 1/26 vs. Indiana, W 82-79 (OT), 31 PTS, 5 REB, 2 BLK, 2 STL, 2 AST, 7/12 FG (58%), 17/22 FT.

In the game that transformed the Badgers’ turnaround from possibility to reality, Hayes summed up the abiding theme of the night best in the post-game handshake line, asserting decisively to each and every Hoosier he passed that “Nobody on your team can guard me.” Judging on the evidence of the 45 minutes that had just gone by, he was 100% correct.

That night, the idea of Hayes’ offensive influence in Greg Gard’s system crystallized as beautifully as anyone could have imagined it would. He played like a 6’9” James Harden, inevitably maneuvering his way into the lane and to the free throw line on every single possession down the stretch. He attacked relentlessly all night, both with and without the ball, battling for post position on smaller defenders and facing up and blowing by bigger ones. He commanded double teams every time down the floor and opened up the necessary air space of the rest of the so often strangled Badger offense to thrive. It was a performance so beautiful that it was hidden under the guise of the team success that he himself had facilitated, and it exemplified Nigel’s mindset, focus, and dominance during the turnaround as a whole.

Worst game: B1G Tournament First Round vs. Nebraska, L 70-58, 10 PTS, 5 REB, 0 AST, 2/15 FG (13%), 0/6 3PT.

This was the night that turned off Nigel’s offensive switch in a staggeringly absolute fashion. Nothing about his approach changed, but jump shot after jump shot clanged off of the iron with a mind numbing repetition, as he quite simply shot his team out of a game that was more than there for the taking. You have to believe that this performance took some type of mental toll on him, and contributed to his subsequent shooting woes in the NCAA Tournament.

Defining moment: Hayes’ season had two truly defining moments; one on the court and one off it.

His well-documented challenge to his teammates as they sat mired in the sorrow of their season’s lowest point, the loss to Northwestern, is widely credited and acknowledged as the key spark in the Badgers’ turnaround, and validly so. However, the importance of that challenge lay not in Nigel’s demands of his teammates, but in his underlying challenge of himself. After that game, he made a conscious decision to shoulder the load for this team, accepted the responsibility of the offense running through him, and for two months used that mentality to salvage a lost season.

However, it was that unfortunate turnover when it mattered most that was perhaps more defining of his year. He wanted the ball in his hands in the final seconds. He wanted the responsibility of beating the Notre Dame press, getting fouled, and sinking two free throws to ice the game. In that moment, he displayed the carefully cultivated mindset of leadership that had helped his team through so much this year, but could not escape from the costly offensive inefficiency that plagued him all March.

Overall verdict: In terms of maturity and mentality, Nigel grew into the “big man on campus” role that was expected of him at the beginning of the year. In that role, however, his reliability and consistency of production on the court was lacking. When he was effective on the offensive end, the team was able to play through him to devastating effect, but that effectiveness was absent for large parts of the year, which never allowed them to establish any offensive consistency down the stretch run. He showed flashes of his All-American potential, but all in all, could never routinely fill the role of stardom that he was touted to step into this year. Expect Hayes to be back next season, as an even better, even hungrier player.

Grade: B-

Bronson Koenig

Wisconsin Bronson Koenig shoots a wide open jumper. He finished the game with a career-high 21 points. (Photo by Rebecca Haas/sconniesportstalk.com)
Koenig settled into his role by season’s end. (Rebecca Haas/sconniesportstalk.com)

Preseason expectations: After senior guard Traevon Jackson’s injury thrust Koenig into a starting role last year, he proved himself to be a confident and reliable ball handler, a solid system defender, and a deadeye shooter. Although he ranked just sixth on the team in usage rate, his offensive rating, true shooting percentage, and effective field goal percentage all ranked in the top-11 of the B1G. So the question going into this year was: Would he be able to translate that efficiency into a more assertive role as one of the focal points of the Badgers’ offense? He was named as a preseason All-B1G selection by the media.

Season statistics: 13.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.4 APG, 0.4 SPG, 1.5 TOPG, 34.9 MPG, 39% FG, 39% 3PT.

Season recap: At the outset of the season, Koenig’s increased assertiveness was there for all to see, yet it seemed to hinder rather than help the Badgers’ struggling offense. He increased his scoring volume on similar efficiency numbers, but used a staggering amount of possessions and saw sharp declines in his assist percentages, even as the primary ball handler in the offense. After losses to Milwaukee and Marquette in which he struggled carrying the heavy offensive burden, he adopted a new approach and regressed into nothing more than a spot up shooter as the Badgers’ limped into conference play. Much like Hayes, it was at the start of the famed seven-game win streak that Koenig truly found himself in Greg Gard’s offense, and established a perfect medium of patience and assertiveness that defined his game for the rest of the year, culminating in a corner step-back in a St. Louis gym that you may or may not have seen before.

Best game: 1/17 vs. Michigan State, W 77-76, 27 PTS, 4 AST, 1 TO, 8/15 FG (53%), 4/8 3PT, 7/7 FT.

This was the start of the new Wisconsin Badgers, and also happened to be the start of the new Bronson Koenig. On the back of the calamitous Northwestern loss, Sparty rolled up to the Kohl Center as one of the nation’s top rated teams, and were methodically dismantled by a clinic from the Badgers’ point guard. He eased himself into the game early, knocking down some early open threes in the flow of the offense. As the defense began to close out on him, he began to get to the hole, slip nice dump off passes to his bigs, kick out to open shooters on the perimeter, finish in and around the hole, and put pressure on the Michigan State bigs by getting to the foul line. This perfect rhythm allowed him to start taking and making contested shots with confidence, all within a nicely apportioned offensive attack that also saw Hayes and Ethan Happ get their touches and their scores. This game was a template for an offensive approach that Bronson championed as the Badgers went from floundering to formidable.

Worst game: 11/29 @ Oklahoma, L 65-48, 9 PTS, 1 AST, 3-18 FG (17%), 3/14 3PT.

There is no better illustrator of Koenig’s harmful offensive approach in the early season than this game in Norman. He spent the entire night dribbling without penetration and throwing up contested bricks from distance at the end of the shot clock after the ball inevitably still found itself in his hands. His forced, shoot-first mentality eliminated any ball movement, fluidity, or ease from the Badgers as a whole, and that showed itself with the shooting percentages and turnover numbers of the entire team on the night.

Defining moments: The defining moment of Koenig’s early season struggles was the final possession in the UW-Milwaukee loss. Not trusting his teammates but having had an inefficient game himself, Bronson dribbled out the last 20 seconds of the game with the Badgers down one, and bricked a contested step back three pointer as time expired.

Can anyone think of a moment that would encapsulate the fearlessness, lethal long distance shooting, and perfect feel for the offense that he displayed in the second half of the season? Something about making Bill Murray cry rings a bell. His gamewinner vs. Xavier will go down in Wisconsin basketball history.

Overall verdict: No, Bronson did not develop into a bonafide star, but I do not think that that was ever what this team wanted or needed from him. He found his niche as a point guard who takes care of the ball as well as anyone in the country, shoots the three at a slightly higher rate with the same astonishing efficiency, and knows how to direct traffic in an offense predicated on movement and spacing. He showed he’s not quite ready to be a first option in a big time college offense, but he also showed a capacity to take on a larger role within the system that benefited the team to the perfect degree.

Grade: B

Ethan Happ

Preseason expectations: Nobody quite knew what to make of Happ before the year began. He was recruited two years ago as a three-star forward, but after growing two inches in his redshirt year and battling Frank Kaminsky down low in practice, he was touted to take over for the departed National Player of the Year himself  as the man in the middle for the Badgers. While his starting spot was not quite a lock going forward, you heard occasional buzz from coaches and teammates raving about his skill set.

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Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ethan Happ made a name for himself in his first season (Zach Rosen, sconniesportstalk.com).

Season statistics: 12.4 PPG, 7.9 RPG*, 1.3 APG, 1.8 SPG*, 0.9 BPG*, 28.1 MPG, 53% FG*.

Season recap: Happ eased his way into the Badgers’ rotation in the early going, playing more and more minutes and taking more and more shots as non-conference play went on. After double-doubles against Georgetown and VCU, he had his coming out party in the win in the Carrier Dome over Syracuse. He had established himself with not only a prominent role in the offense, but also as the team’s top rebounder and shot blocker as conference play started. Inconsistency plagued him throughout the majority of conference play, as he put up monster numbers in some games and completely disappeared in others. However, as the post-season rolled around Happ started becoming a force night in and night out, and morphed into the Badgers’ unquestioned star in the month of March.

Best game: NCAA Tournament Second Round vs. Xavier, W 66-63, 18 PTS, 7 REB, 7/10 FG, 4/4 FT.

This game was not necessarily his best in terms of numbers—Syracuse, Indiana, Penn State, and Illinois spring to mind—but it was the night when Happ’s rise form mercurial freshman talent to this team’s bread and butter fully materialized. They gave him the ball at every turn, and he fearlessly went to work down low against a bigger, stronger Musketeer front line. He kept the Badgers struggling offense afloat single-handedly for about 20 straight minutes on either side of the half, and his efforts are what set the stage for Koenig’s last minute heroics to win the game.

Worst game: 2/10 vs. Nebraska, W 72-61, 2 PTS, 3 REB, 0 BLK, 17 MIN, 0/3 FG.

I wrote a feature in March that focused on the impact of this very game in transforming Ethan Happ into a star. He played his fewest minutes all year and could not effect the game in any facet against a B1G cellar-dweller. Both he and his coach acknowledged the unacceptable nature of this performance and the change that it inspired.

Defining moment: The first five minutes of the second half against Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 were like watching an unstoppable force meet an immovable object, and blow that immovable object to smithereens. That force was Happ, and that object was one of the most intimidating centers in the nation in Zach Auguste. After an ugly first half from both teams offensively, Happ demonstrated his newfound ability to put an absolute stranglehold on a game at the moment of his choosing. On four straight possessions, he bullied his way through Auguste to the doorstep of the rim for eight straight points, culminating in a drive from the top of the key through two Irish defenders that exemplified his unique ability to get to the basket at will.

Overall verdict: Happ was simply a revelation this year. By March, he had established himself as the team’s offensive lynchpin, their best interior defender, best rebounder, best rim protector, and even someone who can put the ball on the floor and create off the dribble. The skill set that he cultivated this year has him tantalizingly poised for what could be a historic college career in Madison.

Grade: A+

Zak Showalter

Wisconsin guard Zak Showalter takes care of the ball against Siena. (Photo by Rebecca Haas/sconniesportstalk.com)
Showalter stepped into the glue-guy role and his presence was felt on and off the stat sheet. (Photo by Rebecca Haas/sconniesportstalk.com)

Preseason expectations: Showalter emerged as part of the rotation last season, and his heart, hustle, toughness, and inspiring rise from walk-on status quickly made him a fan favorite. This year would be a different type of test though, as he was expected to now make the jump from an endearing energy guy to a starter and a leader. He was not anticipated to occupy a major offensive role—he had attempted just eight shots during the entirety of the Badgers post season runs in the B1G and NCAA Tournament—but was expected to anchor the team defensively on the perimeter and provide major minutes.

Season statistics: 7.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.0 SPG, 31.4 MPG, 46% FG, 35% 3PT, 80% FT*.

Season recap: Showalter was a more or less steady hand in a season full of turbulence. He established himself as the team’s best perimeter defender, usually drew the assignment of guarding the opposition’s toughest guard every night, and also proved to be a perfect fit for his limited offensive role. He became an effective three-point shooter and charge machine. His crowning moments came during the Badgers’ NCAA Tournament run, in which Showalter drew widespread plaudits from national media for his role in Wisconsin’s stifling defense and his energy on the offensive end of the floor.

Best game: Sweet Sixteen vs. Notre Dame, L 61-56, 11 PTS, 5 REB, 3 AST, 5/10 FG.

Those plaudits were mostly received for his herculean effort in the Badgers’ season-ending loss. He held NBA Lottery-hopeful Demetrius Jackson under lock and key as the Irish scored just 19 first half points, and also lit the building on fire with a personal 4-0 run late in the second half with most of the starters on the bench, the highlight of which was an explosive tip dunk over two Notre Dame players. Despite a modest line in the stat book, he was without a doubt the most influential player on the floor. In other words, it was the quintessential Zak Showalter performance.

Worst game: 12/9 vs. UW-Milwaukee, L 68-67, 2 PTS, 5 REB, 0/2 FG, Fouled out.

Despite all he brought to the team this year, there were games where he could bring absolutely nothing. This was one of those nights. He completely disappeared offensively, and his perimeter D proved to be stifling to a fault, as he fouled out early guarding a frankly average Milwaukee point guard.

Defining moment: Koenig’s game-winner against Xavier was the stuff of legend, but it could be argued that the defensive play that preceded it was just as good. With the game knotted at 63-63 and the ball in Xavier guard Edmond Sumner’s hands with under 10 seconds left, Showalter did what he had predictably done in every game all season, and slid his feet to draw a crucial charge that gave possession back to the Badgers. Again, another moment that embodied everything that Showalter did for the team all year long.

Overall verdict: Showalter executed his unique role to near perfection this year. It can be said that he disappeared offensively in some games where the Badgers desperately needed more of his influence on the perimeter, but overall the advanced stats on offense and the eye test on defense back up the claim that Showalter was one of the most effective players at doing his job in the country this season.

Grade: A

Vitto Brown

Preseason expectations: To call Brown’s role last year “limited” would be somewhat of an overstatement. He did not log more than four minutes in any meaningful close game all season, and his season high for scoring in conference was four points. The only stat he logged during the Badgers’ run to the National Championship was a singular foul in the Final Four against Kentucky, so it would be reasonable to say that expectations were low for Vitto. However, it was clear that, due to the multitude of departures following that season, he would nevertheless be thrust into a starting role in the front court for 2015-16. Expectations for his season went little beyond hustling, rebounding and being big.

Wisconsin forward Vitto Brown goes for the loose ball against Siena. (Photo by Rebecca Haas/sconniesportstalk.com)
3tto Brown was a revelation in Madison this season. (Photo by Rebecca Haas/sconniesportstalk.com)

Season statistics: 9.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.5 BPG, 25.4 MPG, 45% FG, 40% 3PT*.

Season recap: During the beginning of the year, it was clear that Vitto’s intended role in the team’s offense would be as a stretch-four. He experimented early with a newfound jumpshot, with inconsistent results that angered many Badger fans when he continued to step behind the line and shoot threes, even when they were not falling. However, midway through conference play and during the win streak, something changed and he became one of the most deadly three point shooters in the nation. From the January 4th win over Ohio State onward, he shot at a staggering 57% clip from behind the line, and became a vital cog in the offense, putting up consistent double-digit point totals and opening up space by stretching out defenses. His offensive game was limited beyond his jump shooting, and his defense and rebounding were adequate at best and suspect at worst, but the value of what he had developed into offensively was something that at times carried the team through their stretch run.

Best game: 2/13 @ Maryland, W 70-57, 21 PTS, 7 REBS, 34 MIN, 8/14 FG (57%), 3/6 3PT.

The previous home game against Nebraska was the birth of “3tto” Brown, but this game on the road against #2 Maryland was his new identity in its full glory. Not only did he rain in three long balls and hit two further jump shots, but he also used his newfound offensive confidence to attack the offensive glass with a fury. Against a lengthy and athletic Terrapin front line, he hauled down five offensive rebounds, including three stick backs, and played a season high 34 minutes as he was the game’s most dominant player in a dominant road win.

Worst game: 1/9 vs. Maryland, L 63-60, 0 PTS, 0 REBS, 1 TO, 3 fouls, 18 MIN, 0/3 FG.

This was the early season Vitto that so many people detested, showing himself against the same team he would later dismantle. He missed two early jumpers, lost himself in the offense, and got absolutely bullied down low by Diamond Stone. It wasn’t long before Greg Gard figured out that there was simply no place in the game for this Vitto Brown, and he sat large portions of the second half.

Defining moment: That Nebraska game that I mentioned earlier is what created his new identity as a trusted and deadly shooting big man, but the moment that defined his new identity was a shot that so nearly went down as one of the greatest in Wisconsin history. His wing three to give the Badgers the lead with less than 30 seconds remaining in the Sweet 16 against Notre Dame showed so much of the player that Vitto had morphed into. On the night as a whole, he struggled, but when the game was on the line and he found himself spotting up on the wing with a little breathing space, his teammates, his coaches, and the Badger fan base as a whole trusted him to fire away. Despite the hand in his face, he knocked it through as he had done so many times throughout the year, and affirmed his dedication to developing into what the team needed him to be.

Overall verdict: Brown did not attempt a single three last season. Eight months later, he was one of the best long range shooters in the country. Improvement of such proportion is astonishing in any facet, but when that improvement is exactly what a team requires for their offense as a whole to thrive, it makes it all the more impressive. However, the many holes in Vitto’s game still need to be acknowledged, and he must become more of a defensive force in the post and a threat to put the ball on the floor offensively if he wants to avoid being a liability in certain games like he was the first time around against Maryland.

Grade: A-