With Devin Harris, Wisconsin would have been a national title contender, and certainly no worse than a top-10 preseason pick. But when the Big Ten Player of the Year decided to skip his senior season and enter the NBA Draft, expectations for Bo Ryan's team were replaced by questions.
Who will compensate for the loss of Harris, particularly on offense? Who will take games over down the stretch, as Harris did so often? How far will UW, which has won two Big Ten regular-season titles and one conference tournament title under Ryan, slip in 2004-05?
Harris, who started all of his 96 games at UW, warns the rest of the Big Ten not to underestimate his former team.
"I expect nothing less than if I were there," Harris said. "With the coaching staff, guys will be well-prepared and ready to perform ... With me not there, they're not on the radar anymore, so maybe they can pop up like they've have done numerous times before."
FRONTCOURTHarris' departure will alter the look of the backcourt, and an influx of big bodies will have the same effect on the front line. Power forward Mike Wilkinson returns after earning second-team all-conference honors and should again be a mainstay. He can score, rebound, pass and defend. Too often, though, he's been forced to defend centers instead of forwards.
That should change with the addition of 6-foot-11 freshmen center Greg Stiemsma, 6-11 freshman forward Brian Butch and 6-10 sophomore center Jason Chappell.
Butch, who redshirted last season because he needed to add strength and bulk, is more advanced offensively than Stiemsma. However, Stiemsma could be a force on defense.
"Greg brings a dominating presence with his ability to rebound and block shots," Ryan said.
The wild cards are forwards Zach Morley, Alando Tucker and Ray Nixon. Morley was the consummate sixth man in his first season after transferring from junior college. Is he ready for a starting role? Will Tucker, who missed all but four games last season because of a broken foot, regain the form he displayed as a freshman? Can Nixon, who showed promise in spurts last season, become more consistent?
If Morley, Tucker and Nixon provide affirmative answers, and Butch and Stiemsma are as good as advertised, this unit could dominate the Big Ten.
BACKCOURTRyan, 68-28 in three seasons at UW, believes his team will find a capable point guard to replace Harris. Candidates include junior Boo Wade, sophomore Kammron Taylor or perhaps even freshman Michael Flowers.
"Whoever it is," Ryan said, "they will be qualified, they'll work hard [and] they'll earn the position."
A committee approach, led by Wade and Taylor, appears likely. Wade doesn't look like a fluid ball-handler but has 138 assists to 77 turnovers in two seasons. He should be able to score consistently from the lane area, a staple of Ryan's offense, but his outside shot is shaky. Taylor is quick enough to break down defenses using dribble penetration, but his defensive shortcomings kept him on the bench for most of last season.
If Wade and/or Taylor can merely run the offense and seniors Clayton Hanson and Sharif Chambliss can provide consistent perimeter scoring, the Badgers should be able to compensate for the loss of Harris and capitalize on the potential strength up front. Hanson can be a dangerous 3-point threat, and Chambliss led the Big Ten in 3-pointers made as a sophomore and junior at Penn State before transferring to UW. He looked outstanding in practice last season before suffering a torn ACL in March. He hopes to return no later than the Big Ten opener.
FINAL ANALYSISUW fans were fantasizing about a Final Four run -- until Harris decided to skip his senior season. Still, the Badgers should be a factor in the Big Ten. Ryan has proven to be a master at identifying skilled players, developing their all-around game and putting them in optimal positions for individual and team success. Those traits have allowed UW to take its place among the elite programs in the Big Ten during the last three seasons, and those traits will allow the Badgers to compete for the league title again this season.