Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan isn't sure what to expect with a roster that includes six freshmen and the return of a key player who missed all of last season with an injury.
"Will youth be served or will the youth get served? I don't know. We'll have to wait and see," Ryan, entering his 13th season at Wisconsin, said Friday. "As long as they're good surprises, not bad surprises — I like good surprises. Yeah, there's a lot of question marks"
The Badgers, who advanced to the Big Ten tournament title game last season, must replace their top three frontcourt players and rebounders — Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz.
Frank Kaminsky, a 6-foot-11 center, is the lone returning big player who saw significant playing time last season, averaging 4.2 points and 10.3 minutes. Evan Anderson, a 6-10 junior center who played sparingly last season, is the only other player on the roster taller than 6-8.
"It's going to be tough to step in and replace what Jared and Mike and Ryan did for the last three or four years," Kaminsky said. "Obviously, being the starting center, there's going to be some pressures and things that are expected of me that maybe weren't expected the last two years."
Shooting guard Ben Brust, one of two seniors, led the Badgers in scoring last season at 11.1 points per game, while 6-7 small forward Sam Dekker averaged 9.6 points as the sixth man, earning a spot on the all-Big Ten freshman team.
The unknown factor is junior guard Josh Gasser, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL in his left knee. The 6-3 Gasser, who can play either guard spot, started 66 games in his first two season at Wisconsin. He averaged 5.9 points as a freshman and 7.6 as a sophomore, also being named to the Big Ten all-defensive team.
"If he's going to be on the court, he has to be able to do everything that's asked of every other player," Ryan said. "If he's not able to, then he's not on the court. So, he's been on the court and he's done some pretty good things."
Guards Traevon Jackson, a 6-2 junior, and George Marshall, a 5-11 sophomore, also saw considerable action last season.
The youthful Badgers benefited from a five-game exhibition tour of Canada in August, winning four straight after an opening 95-82 loss to Carleton University, which has won nine of the last 11 Canadian national championships.
"We learned a lot in Canada. We got a little hiccup out of the way where we hadn't played together in a competitive setting, and then we go and win four in a row," said Decker, who led the team in Canada with 19.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists. "That's the type of guys we have. When we play together and have that high energy, we're going to be tough to stop in the Big Ten and any other game, non-conference games or whatever. I think we're going to be ready to play."
Another advantage of the Canadian tour was that Gasser also was able to test his knee in a game setting.
"I wasn't out there trying to do too much. Just get up and down the floor a little bit, see how I could handle things and it went well," Gasser said. "I found out I can still play. I'm good enough where I need to be. My knee is healthy. Making cuts and stuff like that, it's not going to give out. It was good to give me some confidence in myself and to know that I just need to get better basketball-wise."
The one constant is Ryan, whose Wisconsin teams have won at least 19 games each season, including two 30-win seasons, and made the NCAA tournament each year. The Badgers had never won more than 22 games in a season prior to the arrival of Ryan, whose 291-113 record makes him the winningest coach in school history.
"This is probably one of the brightest group of freshman collectively that we've had," Ryan said. "Very astute, very perceptive, hungry. They're grasping a lot of things and I think it's out of necessity. Sometimes freshmen come in and see all these guys in front of them where they feel they have no chance of getting minutes. We have several guys who know if they continue to progress and do what we ask of them, they can get on the floor."