2016 was a wild year for Wisconsin sports, but there’s certainly a lot ahead for every major team within the state. With both Badger and Bucks basketball in full swing, the Packers gearing up for the playoffs, and a Brewers season yet to come, 2017 promises to be nothing if not memorable. With all that’s ahead, let’s take a look at what could be in the year to come.
1. The Milwaukee Brewers approach .500 on their way to a full rebuild. Sure, it’s still going to be hard to contend in the NL Central, especially when it’s occupied by the reigning World Champion Cubs (still weird to see that as a phrase), but the Brewers’ dedication to the rebuild will begin to come to fruition in 2017. Already, the Brew Crew has traded for Red Sox prospects in the offseason, and with a wealth of names in one of the best farm systems in the MLB, it’s high time that they begin to move up in the Central. The Reds don’t look like they’re going to be making any major moves; the Cardinals are certainly on the decline; no one is really sure what’s going on in Pittsburgh. Sure, the current 25-man roster features few big names other than Ryan Braun, but others like Jonathon Villar appeared to begin turning a corner in 2016, and prospects like Orlando Arcia and lefty Josh Hader should make big splashes in the big leagues. The ceiling for the Brewers is higher this year than it’s been in the recent past; .500 is certainly not out of the question.
2. Wisconsin football loses just one regular season game on their way to the Big Ten Championship. The last three season-opening games for the Badgers have been against LSU, Alabama, and LSU. This year, they’ll kick things off against Utah State, and their schedule (at least on paper) appears to be much easier than their 2016 schedule. In 2016 alone, the Badgers faced top-10 teams in LSU (at Lambeau), at Michigan State, at Michigan, home against Ohio State, home against Nebraska, and Penn State (in Indianapolis). The only one of those teams they’ll face next year that they didn’t beat is Michigan, and they’ll be without offensive weapons like Jabrill Peppers and Jake Butt. It’s true that the Badgers are losing some big names – Shelton, Musso, Houston, Biegel, Jacobs, Ogunbowale, Clement, Wheelwright (and probably Ramcyzk) are among them – but with Chris Orr and Jack Cichy at full health, Rafael Gaglianone back, and Alex Hornibrook (or maybe transfer Malik Zaire) with a much more defined role, the Badgers will likely be favorites in almost every game they play. Their only true away games will be at BYU, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota. If Justin Wilcox’s defensive scheme works as well as it did this year and the offense can hold it together, expect Wisconsin to be contending for a spot in the playoff yet again.
3. The Packers make it to the Super Bowl in February, and improve on their 10-6 record come next season. Green Bay, behind the legend of Aaron Rodgers’ “run the table” comment, is quite possibly the hottest team in the NFL right now. They stared a 4-6 record in the eye and said “not today,” winning their next six and the NFC North as well. In their last six games alone, they’ve beaten three playoff teams (Seahawks, Lions, Texans), and after midseason comments about a “down year,” Rodgers is not only the frontrunner in fantasy points for a quarterback, but likely the MVP discussion. The Pack will get the Giants next week (a team they’ve already beaten this year), and if they can pull out a win in Green Bay, they’ll either get the Falcons or Cowboys. Sure, both teams have beaten the Packers this year, but Green Bay is peaking, the defense is healthier than it’s been, and things are clicking. Unlike a Cowboys team led by two rookies and a Falcons team with one playoff win in the last 12 years, the Packers are experienced in the postseason. A matchup against New England, Pittsburgh or Kansas City in the Super Bowl seems like a definite possibility. With a healthier team, draft picks and few departures come next season, look for the Packers to figure things out even quicker next year and finish with more than 10 wins.
4. Wisconsin men’s basketball wins the Big Ten and appears in the Final Four for the third time in four years. With either one or two conference games played by every Big Ten team so far, there remain (amazingly) just three undefeated in-conference teams: Michigan State, Nebraska (?!), and the Badgers. Last week, many thought the three teams to contend for the Big Ten title this season would be Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue. But while Indiana looked great in wins over Kansas and North Carolina, they’ve dropped two straight to Nebraska and Louisville, as well as had confusing losses to Butler and IPFW in their non-conference schedule; Purdue was downed by Minnesota at home. The Badgers face likely their two hardest games of the regular season in the coming days, traveling to Bloomington and West Lafayette. If they can capitalize on these teams’ weaknesses now, they’ll be able to ride momentum and talent on the way to a Big Ten title. Losses to Creighton and North Carolina were great wake-up calls; this team is aware of its capabilities now. Nigel Hayes is fitting more into his role on the team. Ethan Happ, who’s averaging close to a double-double a game, looks like one of the best true centers in the country. Even role players like D’Mitrik Trice and Khalil Iverson are starting to find their flow. If Greg Gard’s coaching abilities can lead this team to win games it should win, the Badgers should have no problem finishing with a pristine regular season record. Once in the tournament, look for pure experience to take over – Hayes, Showalter, Koenig and Brown have all been to the Final Four before, and almost everyone else has been to the Sweet 16. The Badgers are one of the most dangerous postseason teams in the country, and they looked primed for a deep run this season, pending health.
5. The Bucks, led by All-Star starter Giannis Antetokounmpo, win their first playoff series since 2001. PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is meant to be an all-encompassing statistic – the truest measure of talent in the NBA, much like WAR in baseball. To have a PER over 30 means you’re likely the best in the league, and only one player this season (Russell Westbrook, 30.41) has reached that point. Second to Westbrook? The Greek Freak himself, Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.98), over names like Durant, Harden, Cousins, Davis and Leonard. The Bucks’ edgy first round pick in the 2013 draft is paying off major dividends, and it’d be surprising to not see him starting the All-Star Game. What’s more surprising is the way in which the Bucks are contending so far this season – while the East looks like the weakest it’s been in a while (and that’s saying something), the Bucks are just 4th in the East in point differential (+2.5), and only a game back of the 5-seed. Obviously, the Cavaliers will probably take home the 1-seed, and Toronto and Boston are establishing themselves as the next tier, but anything from the 4-seed down seems up for grabs, and the Middleton-less Bucks could make a run for it, especially if Giannis and Jabari Parker continue to play at the level they have. Beyond these two alone, rookie Malcolm Brogdon continues to look like one of the smartest draft picks in the recent past – on Saturday, he became the only rookie this season to record a triple-double (and one of only 14 players to do so all season). With the East as wide open as it’s been and the Bucks with momentum on their side, a first round upset of a team like Toronto or Boston or a series win over teams like Atlanta or Charlotte is not out of the question. Things are looking up for the Bucks.