Posted: Friday October 20, 2006 4:41PM; Updated: Monday October 23, 2006 12:15PM
With senior forward Alando Tucker leading the way, big things are expected in 2006-07 for a deep Wisconsin squad.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Have questions or feedback? E-mail Luke Winn.
MADISON, Wis. -- Alando Tucker is driving with the Kohl Center in his rearview mirror, his white Dodge Intrepid auto-piloting a stretch of Dayton Street that he's traveled at least a thousand times since joining the Badgers in 2002. His five-year career has spanned from the end of the Devin Harris era through a medical redshirt and the Badgers' Elite Eight run in 2005 to this, his final season, in which the UW is forecasted in the top 15 of most national polls.
Surveying the student pedestrians on a chilly Thursday evening, the 6-foot-6 forward says, "It's funny; I just ride around, and look at everything here and sometimes think, 'I'm old.'"
Tucker's status as the team's elder statesman, as well as his rank as UW's leading returning scorer (at 19.0 ppg) and the no-brainer pick as preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, give him the cred to put the 2006-07 Badgers in perspective. The bottom line, he says, is this: "We're the deepest team I've been on at Wisconsin -- and that's saying a lot."
The UW's high preseason ranking (in some cases, ahead of Arizona, the team it was blown out by in the first round of the NCAA tournament last March) isn't based strictly on the fact that the Badgers return four of five starters and their top three leading scorers: Tucker, senior guard Kammron Taylor (14.2 ppg) and junior forward Brian Butch (9.9 ppg). It's more because UW has re-assembled the team that looked dangerous in early January, starting 14-2 and cruising past Michigan State and Iowa -- as opposed to the squad that lost freshmen Marcus Landry and Greg Stiemsma for the second semester due to academic ineligibility, had myriad others hampered by injuries (including Tucker, who had to wear a face mask), and limped to the finish line with four straight losses and a final record of 19-12.
The Badgers' healthy options in 2005-06 were so limited at times during conference play, Tucker said, that team managers were forced to fill important spots in practice. With everyone back in the fold, and the addition of two talented freshmen guards (bullish point Trevon Hughes and sharpshooter Jason Bohannon), UW's workouts have become more bullish, and Tucker's depth claim looks legit.
"We're getting 90 percent of our scoring back," said Tucker, "and remember how we started out? We were 4-0 in the Big Ten; we killed Michigan State, dogged Iowa, and won the Virgin Islands tournament before that. People forget about that -- when we played Arizona, that was a way different team. We're a lot more athletic, and we've got our inside presence on defense back, too."
Indeed, when head coach Bo Ryan split the team up for drills in Thursday's practice by saying, "Bigger-than-average guys on this side; average-to-small guys on the other," the sheer volume of options UW has became evident. On one side of the floor there were six centers or forwards who could warrant decent minutes: Butch, Landry, Stiemsma, Tucker, sophomore Joe Krabbenhoft and senior Jason Chappell. On the other side were five options at the guard spots: the game-tested Taylor and junior Michael Flowers; the freshmen, Bohannon and Hughes, and redshirt frosh point guard Mickey Perry. Which of the role players secures the most minutes is still T.B.D., but one thing is certain: The Badgers won't have to worry about anyone getting tired.
Ryan, a creature of habit, said he prefers not to tinker with his starting lineup "because I don't want guys obsessing or worrying about who's starting." So expect the returning four starters -- Tucker, Butch, Chappell and Taylor -- to remain starters, and Flowers to take over for the departed Ray Nixon at the two.
"I like to go with veterans early," said Ryan, "but as the young players get better, watch their minutes go up." The starters won't necessarily get the most P.T., and in that lineup, the Badgers could arguably have three of their most athletic players, Stiemsma, Landry and Hughes, coming off the bench -- a formidable relief squad.
Said Chappell, who endured the lean days of early 2006, "It's nice to know that this season, when you're out there, you don't have to pace yourself. You can go all out, and then somebody else can come in and there won't be any letdown."