Cal Sport Media
Nigel Hayes hangin’ around during last Friday night’s 79-47 win against Central Arkansas.
Consider the drama surrounding the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team the past few years: back-to-back Final Fours, the sudden retirement of longtime head coach Bo Ryan and the glorious turnaround that Ryan’s replacement, Greg Gard, engineered during the second half of last season.
On Nov. 11, the program with 18 straight NCAA tournament appearances, kicked off another season of high expectations with a dominating 79-47 win over Central Arkansas at the Kohl Center. That’s not saying much, but remember the Badgers fell to Western Illinois in their home opener last season and were barely over .500 when Ryan abruptly departed.
The so-called changing of the Gard resulted in a 22-13 season and a trip to the Sweet 16.
Expect nothing less — and likely a whole lot more — from this year’s Badgers, who were ranked No. 9 nationally in the Associated Press preseason poll.
The majority of players from last year’s squad have returned, including the starting five and the top five reserves. Forward Nigel Hayes flirted with the NBA but wisely chose to stick around Madison for his senior season and was named the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year.
Joining Hayes are fellow seniors Vitto Brown at forward and guards Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter. Add redshirt sophomore Ethan Happ, last year’s freshman of the year in the Big 10 and team leader in rebounds, and you’ve got a starting five that should be among the most formidable in the country.
By the time you read this, the Badgers might already be on their way to Hawaii for the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, an impressive eight-team tourney in which UW will face its first real test of the season when it tips off against Tennessee on Monday, Nov. 21, and will then play either Georgetown or No. 5 Oregon.
With four other Big 10 teams hovering in the preseason Top 25 — Indiana at No. 11, Michigan State at No. 12, Purdue at No. 15 and Maryland at No. 25 — the road to a third Final Four in four years could be rocky. But as Koenig pointed out to the Wisconsin State Journal’s Tom Oates, these Badgers are on a mission.
“I think everybody knows...that our goal is to win the national championship,” Koenig said. “No one’s expectations will be higher than ours.”