After four months of accomplishments that included a Big Ten Tournament Championship, a 12-4 record in conference play and an unblemished home campaign, the UW men’s basketball team’s season came to an abrupt conclusion Sunday at the hands of Pittsburgh.

With the memories of missed opportunities and flashbacks of Chris Taft’s put-back dunk still weighing heavily on many Badger backers’ minds, it may seem too soon to begin talking about the prospects of next season.

But with the team Wisconsin is set to field in 2004-05, I believe that an exception can be made.

Although the loss of Freddie Owens’ play at the defensive end and Dave Mader’s leadership will both be missing from next year’s squad, the makeup of Bo’s Badgers give them the weapons needed to not only earn a third Big Ten title in four seasons, but also make a serious run in the Big Dance.

For starters, Owens’ replacement in UW’s backcourt will be Penn State transfer and three-point specialist Sharif Chambliss.

Chambliss isn’t quite as tough defensively as Owens, but his smooth jumper and ability to create his own shot make him a vastly greater all-around player.

“Reef” was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection by the media in 2002 and 2003, leading the conference in three-pointers made during both seasons, and will provide the Badgers with another dangerous scoring threat.

He went down with a torn ACL while making a move toward the basket during practice last Tuesday. But barring complications recovering from his pending knee surgery, he should be active by at least the start of the Big Ten season.

Chambliss isn’t the only key addition to next year’s team, though.

Brian Butch, who opted to redshirt this season to gain some weight and experience, will add some depth to an already solid frontcourt. The 6-foot-11 Appleton native is one of just four players in history to be named a McDonald’s All-American from the state of Wisconsin and is the only first-team High School “Parade” All-American to ever attend UW.

Regardless of who Coach Ryan ultimately decides to start, the four-man rotation of Butch, Zach Morley, second-team All-Big Ten selection Mike Wilkinson and a healthy Alando Tucker will form the best frontcourt in the Big Ten, and give the Badgers an inside presence needed to bang with teams like Pittsburgh and Connecticut come tournament time.

The addition of Butch will also provide the Badgers with a player who is comfortable scoring with his back to the basket. Aside from Wilkinson, Wisconsin ran very thin in this area in 2003-04.

And if Randolph standout Greg Stiemsma, who just led his Rockets to a third consecutive state title, decides to play next year instead of redshirting, the Badgers will have yet another 7-footer to contest shots and snare down rebounds.

More importantly than the UW debuts of Chambliss, Butch and possibly Stiemsma next season, however, will be the return of the aforementioned Alando Tucker.

Tucker is outstanding on the glass, creates matchup problems because of his offensive versatility and is just a flat-out silly athlete. As a freshman in 2002-03, he led the Big Ten and set a school record for offensive rebounds (86) and was the third leading scorer (12.0 ppg) on a team that won the conference crown and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament.

I realize that hypotheticals typically don’t mean squat when looking back on a season, but what if Tucker had been in the UW lineup during Wisconsin’s six-point overtime loss to Maryland, two-point loss to Purdue or, most importantly, during the team’s four-point loss Sunday?

All three of these teams obviously boast very solid squads (especially Pittsburgh), and you can’t say with any unwavering confidence that one guy is going to ultimately decide the outcome of a game. But in a game like Sunday’s where rebounding and second-chance points proved to be the most glaring statistics, Tucker would have definitely been a positive contributor to the Badger cause.

As loaded as Tucker and UW’s starting lineup next season will be, no team is complete without at least a few solid role players.

And Wisconsin definitely will have no shortage in this area.

Headlining the group of guys on next year’s UW roster who won’t grab the headlines are guard Clayton Hanson and forward Ray Nixon.

Hanson provided Wisconsin with a huge spark off the bench throughout this season, including a 17-point outburst against Michigan Jan. 21 and a pair of big trey balls during UW’s huge comeback against Richmond Friday. And it was his three-pointer and clutch free throws during the final minute of Wisconsin’s overtime game at Michigan State that ultimately propelled the Badgers to a 68-64 victory.

As for Nixon, he also had an impact on UW’s success in 2003-04, and he was arguably the team’s most improved player.

He stands 6-foot-7 but still has an ability to knock down the perimeter shot, creating a matchup problem for many teams. In the Big Ten Tournament Championship game against Illinois, Nixon connected on three of his five attempts from the field — including a perfect 2-2 from beyond the arc — and pulled down four rebounds in just 16 minutes of playing time.

While Hanson and Nixon will likely see a drop in their playing time next season, Coach Ryan will have the luxury of having a pair of solid players as his eighth or ninth option in the lineup.

Rounding out the Badger bench will be forward/center Andreas Helmigk, forward Jason Chappell, point guard Kammron Taylor and incoming freshmen DeAaron Williams and Michael Flowers.

Bigger than the questions regarding UW’s role players, how well Chambliss will mesh with the UW lineup or the impact Butch will have in his inaugural college season, however, is whether or not Devin Harris will decide to go pro.

Harris is the undisputed leader of this team and is the go-to player when the shot clock is running down or Wisconsin needs a big play down the stretch.

His presence in the UW lineup forces teams to recognize where he is on the floor at all times and allows his Badger mates to get open looks and high-percentage shots.

“I’m just trying to get him to stay. One more year,” Boo Wade said. “Next year coming into this thing we’ll have Brian Butch, and Sharif (Chambliss) will be here. We’ll be a great team all around.”

Even if Harris does opt to cash in on the millions awaiting him in the NBA, the Badgers will still have an extremely solid team next season.

Wilkinson, Morley, Tucker and Chambliss would pick up his scoring absence at the offensive end, and Wade would be the logical choice as his replacement at the point.

“If Devin doesn’t come back, Coach (Ryan) is going to tell me I’ve got to control the ball,” Wade said. “I’ll just have to go out there and direct traffic. You know, show the team what’s going on.”

So, regardless of whether or not Harris parts ways with the University of Wisconsin come May, next year’s Badger squad will have all the tools necessary to potentially make some serious noise in the NCAA tournament.