As Wisconsin wrapped up its tournament run in Syracuse two weeks ago, the dark shadow of a foreboding word descended upon Bo Ryan’s squad.


With the long-dreaded exodus of several senior success stories finally at hand, the future of the team already appeared uncertain heading into April. Then, as the Final Four raged in St. Louis, rumors suddenly emerged in southeastern Wisconsin of associate head coach Rob Jeter’s designs to commandeer a ship of his own. And now, with Jeter headed for Milwaukee’s upper-east side, even the Wisconsin coaching staff is left with a significant scar.

Although it seems audacious to make this assertion so soon after the departure of both the winningest senior class in school history and a longtime member of Ryan’s staff, next year, Wisconsin will improve. Yes, improve.

While April saw the program lose a great deal of experience and refinement, most of the raw talent remains largely in place. It’s easy to let the paper records speak for themselves, but nevertheless haphazard. What does Wisconsin stand to lose … other than the obvious four starters worth 38.1 points and 18.8 rebounds per game of proven productivity? Some rough times while this less-tested group forms into a working unit? Certainly. But witnessing so many athletes from the same ragtag class wildly exceed expectations reveals something more than the mere hand of fate. A certain quality of player development drives this program — credit that to Bo Ryan.

Years ago, very few expected Mike Wilkinson to one day garner all-Big Ten honors, or foresaw Clayton Hanson dropping clutch 3-pointers in a regional final matchup against the eventual national champions. In fact, the very suggestion of either appeared almost laughable.

When the team snagged a young forward from the Indian Hills Community College, it seemed almost a bewildering acquisition. Since when do major conference contenders hunt JUCOs? Hardly a sign of high pedigree. Yet, Zach Morley took little time evolving into a solid contributor.

Finally, when Devin Harris stepped up to fill the point, Wisconsin fans looked forward to watching the career of another steady role-player. But a lottery pick? Never.

However, examining the pool of talent floating around Madison these days, a little fantastic speculation is very much in order. From a purely athletic perspective, Wisconsin hasn’t looked this stacked, well, ever. Not buying it? Take a quick look at this preliminary prospectus, position by position …

Point guard (Taylor): The primary question mark for Wisconsin heading into 2004-05 actually turned out better than many feared. Even though Sharif Chambliss converted from off-guard to carry the rock for the team most of the season, the Badgers witnessed flashes of brilliance from future maestro Kammron Taylor.

Although reminiscent of a young Dee Brown in many ways, Taylor’s general ball-handling skills still leave much to be desired. The fleet-footed Twin-Kam particularly struggles maintaining control at high speeds. Nevertheless, Taylor’s presence as a slashing threat opens up a bevy of perimeter options — a valuable asset. He may never receive the outside-the-system license granted to Harris, but even working with the swing, Taylor will register some hearty numbers, especially against slower backcourts.

Off-guard (Flowers, Perry): While not quite as lights-out from behind the arc as Hanson, Flowers brings something infinitely valuable to the Wisconsin backcourt — an answer to the dribble penetration. Wait, a soft spot on the team that led the Big Ten in scoring defense? Believe it. Shannon Brown, Alan Anderson, Deron Williams and Vincent Grier all pointed to the same Achilles’ heel.

Complementing Flowers’ defensive skills with a little slash and burn, freshman two-guard Phillip Perry will debut this fall in the cardinal and white. Given the anemic state of the Badger backcourt, Perry might actually receive some considerable time as a true freshman.

Swingman (Tucker, Williams): Much of the Badgers’ landmark tournament success this year rested on the same type of solid fundamentals that took the program to the Final Four half a decade ago. Moving the ball, hunting the shot carefully and strategically, stalwart defense aiming to slow the game pace — these are the tenets of Wisconsin basketball.

Against North Carolina in particular, it appeared another episode in the perpetual battle between system and unadulterated ability. Not a single Wisconsin player seemed a match for the elite of Tobacco Row, with one exception.

Despite back-to-back campaigns haunted by injury, Alando Tucker exploded in the 2005 post-season, providing a string of marquee performances to aid the squad to an unlikely Elite Eight appearance. But this you know. The significance of that game lies in the details. When ‘Do took the ball and eyed the rim, it scarcely required fervent observation to notice the instant change in the demeanor of the Tar Heel defense.

At the tournament, opponents viewed Tucker as a bona fide ACC-caliber offensive weapon — a forward too powerful for guard cover and gifted with the speed to easily maneuver past any obstacle in the low post. If Tucker can secure that ever-elusive healthy season, there’s almost no ceiling on his offensive potential.

Small forward (Nixon, Landry, Krabbenhoft): The most difficult position to predict remains the four-spot for the simple fact that the potential for colossal improvement and stunning disappointment are equally palpable. The athletic Ray Nixon will finally garner the starting spot, but a pair of coveted prospects might make a case for some serious playing time.

Dubbed the most highly touted recruit to come out of South Dakota (yeah, I know) in years, forward Joe Krabbenhoft recently concluded an impressive prep career with a senior season coated in double-doubles. In the tradition of recent Wisconsin forwards, Krabbenhoft has also proved capable at ringing in the deep ball.

More from the Tucker school of forwardry, Marcus Landry — brother of Purdue stud Carl Landry — possesses the raw talent to eclipse his brother.

Power forward (Butch, Stiemsma): The situation at the five-spot holds promise, but the rewards likely won’t prove immediately forthcoming.

The projected starter, Brian Butch, played a grand total of 261 minutes this past season, though he missed a considerable stretch due to a bout with mononucleosis. With other 2003 All-Americans riding high all over the country — including Shannon Brown at Michigan State — Butch faced a greater challenge adjusting to NCAA ball as an undersized center. The story is essentially the same. Butch has the fire, but keeps getting knocked around in the low post. More muscle should polish off an otherwise well-rounded player.

Greg Stiemsma, on the other hand, seems limited to the role of defensive specialist until he can develop a post move or two. The 6-foot-11, 245-pound forward prefers to simply crash the boards, guard the lanes and wait for the high-percentage scoring opportunity. Nothing overly creative — just a solid Division IV post monster from some place in Wisconsin nobody’s-been-to.

Just as point guard was last season, the five-spot stands out as the primary source of concern for the team as it heads into 2005-06. In terms of refinement, the dropoff from Wilkinson to any forward in the league is a steep one. But, alas, Wilk’s gone, and the time has arrived to replace a Wisconsin institution.

That’s just the nature of college basketball.