When point guard Jordan Taylor took his final steps on the hardwood in a Wisconsin uniform in a heartbreaking one-point loss to Syracuse seven months ago, he left a power vacuum for the lead role of the Badgers’ offense.
Who would fill in for his 14.8 points and 11.5 field goal tries per game and his sure-handed ball-handling, so critical to Bo Ryan’s swing offense? Who would step in to replace his two-plus years of starting experience and the playmaking ability so dangerous opponents designed game plans around it?
Such is the exact predicament facing this Badger squad as they ready for the 2012 campaign, their sights set on a 15th-straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Three days after opening the UW basketball team’s first practice of the season, a handful of young players and select group of returnees from last season’s unit have shown something more than potential but short of promise in helping to fill Taylor’s massive void.
Perhaps more than in any other season in recent memory, Ryan and Co. will rely on the collective talents of a group of semi-proven wild cards, the players who needed all four years to reach their true potential. In a program built on overlooked talent and overachieving role players, this unit is the epitome of the Ryan system. With no outright star, how this collection of players feeds off one another will determine if this Badger squad can live up to its top 20 preseason billing.
So who, exactly, is in line to make up for the three-point heaving, offensive wizard that was Jordan Taylor?
It starts with a pair of fifth-year seniors in Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren – the only two returning players who averaged double-digit scoring in 2011-12. The freakishly athletic Evans, Wisconsin’s second-leading scorer last year, has the biggest window of potential of any other player on the team.
After jumping from under three points per contest as a sophomore to 11 as a junior, Evans must develop a consistent shot inside the three-point perimeter. His crowd-juicing, rim-rattling slams are certainly a joy to watch, but with Taylor’s consistent jumper no longer present, Evans needs to be a more complete player this year to consume his slice of the Taylor pie. He is now one of the Badgers’ go-to offensive weapons.
And backing him up in the frontcourt will be forward/center Berggren, the versatile big man who also saw his numbers jump in 2011-12, his first year as a full-time starter. Though Berggren served as the Badgers’ primary inside threat last year, he no longer has Taylor around as the last-ditch option to throw up a late shot outside the paint.
But perhaps the most critical – and unpredictable – players helping to replace Wisconsin’s best player come in George Marshall and Sam Dekker, neither of whom have ever suited up for a collegiate game.
Marshall, the classic overlooked talent Ryan loves to sign, earned much praise last season as the Badgers’ scout team point guard. Even Taylor himself said the undersized 5-foot-11 point guard impressed him in practice.
And it’s not as if the coaches expect Marshall to step in and start raining down threes. That said, the apparent frontrunner for the starting spot as the floor general will need to be an efficient ball-handler, as a turnover-prone man at the point would wreck the Badgers’ entire offensive philosophy.
Then there’s Dekker. Everyone knows about the highly-touted recruit who landed on the top spot of Sports Center’s top plays last spring with a game-winning three-pointer in the WIAA state basketball tournament. A top 20 recruit nationally, Dekker could see even more time on the court with forward Mike Bruesewitz missing time with a leg injury that will keep him out for the first few games of the season.
Though the 6-foot-7 high school All-American has no shortage of athleticism, his lanky frame could be a liability in the Big Ten, a conference known for its physicality. Freshmen have played a key role on Wisconsin teams before – think Josh Gasser two years ago – but Dekker may be the first Wisconsin true freshman in years fans can count on to make a considerable scoring impact.
The list could go on with the likes of Bruesewitz (once he returns), offense-igniting sixth man Ben Brust and sophomore forward Frank Kaminsky. Not a single player on the roster draws the national attention Taylor garnered a year ago as a preseason All-American and recognition as one of the nation’s top point guards.
While Taylor did not keep pace with the outstanding numbers he posted as a junior and didn’t match the preseason expectations many set for him, his offensive footprint reached beyond scoring and assists. Not only did he create scoring opportunities for teammates because he drew so much attention from opposing defenses, but the ball passed through Taylor’s hands on nearly every Wisconsin possession last year.
The key components are there for UW to go dancing come March. But an unusually challenging nonconference schedule will test the mettle of the Taylor-less Badgers early.
So when UW tips off its regular season-opener Oct. 11, a fresh face will dribble the ball up the court, feeding it inside to Berggren or finding an open Evans on the left elbow. And so will begin a new era.