Party Like It’s 2015?

Photo Credit: Madison

A lot has happened since the night of Saturday, April 4th, 2015, when the Wisconsin Badgers knocked off the 38-win undefeated Kentucky Wildcats by a score of 71-64 in the Final Four of the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium, in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Wisconsin then lost the national championship game to the Duke Blue Devils by a score of 68-63 two nights later. Badgers’ forward Frank Kaminsky was named the 2015 Wooden Award winner. Both star forwards and team leaders in scoring Kaminsky, who averaged 18.8 points per game in the 2014-2015 season, and Sam Dekker, who averaged 13.9 points per game in the 2014-2015 season, declared for and were drafted in the 2015 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets and the Houston Rockets, respectively, with the 9th overall and 18th overall picks, respectively.

But returning starters Nigel Hayes (12.4 points per game in the 2014-2015 season) at forward and Bronson Koenig (8.7 points per game in the 2014-2015 season) were key reasons why the Badgers were ranked #17 in the 2015-2016 preseason AP Poll, and they were they key reasons why the Badgers had at least some hope after the roots of their national championship game run were gone.

Then, reality hit, as the Western Illinois Leathernecks gave Wisconsin a loss by a score of 69-67 on their home floor at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin, to open up the 2015-2016 campaign. But that was not even close to being the end of the misery that Wisconsin was facing just months after their highest of highs when they (well, an almost completely different Wisconsin team) defeated Kentucky. They also dropped home games to the Milwaukee Panthers and the Marquette Golden Eagles by one and two points, respectively.

Then, 15-year head coach Bo Ryan retired after the team avoided yet another home upset against the Texas A&M Corpus Christi Islanders, and Greg Gard took over as the interim head coach.

Gard picked up where Ryan left off. The team barely got by the Green Bay Phoenix at home before opening Big Ten Conference play on a stretch during which they won one out of five games. The Badgers were now 9-9, and they had lost 10 of their last 19 games since that “oh-so-different” team knocked off arguably the greatest team in NCAA basketball history.

Trailing by 4 points with 28 seconds to go against the #4 Michigan State Spartans at home, the Badgers were able to come back and win to earn the signature win they needed to hopefully get back on the right track. A loss would have sent them to a miserable 9-10 record with a 1-5 record in Big Ten Conference play. But the win gave them the momentum that they needed to go on a 7-game winning streak during which they won on the road at the Xfinity Center in College Park, Maryland, against the #2 Maryland Terrapins in convincing fashion by a score of 70-57.

The Badgers ended up going to the 2016 NCAA Basketball Tournament with a 20-12 record despite not even being in the discussion to make it in until late in the regular season. And they were no “one-and-done” either. A 47-43 victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers sent them to the second round against the Xavier Musketeers, a team that many people thought was a dark horse contender to win the national championship.

Not on Bronson Koenig’s watch.

(Video Credit: NCAA March Madness)

The Badgers’ improbable run to the Sweet Sixteen did, however, end in the Sweet Sixteen with a heartbreaking 61-56 loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

But enough of this play-by-play of the Badgers’ 2015-2016 season. Let’s get to the point of this article. How is the 2016-2017 team like the 2014-2015 team?

Well, first of all, the 2016-2017 team is pretty much the same as the 2015-2016 team, a team that was pretty much nothing like the 2014-2015. But it is alike the 2014-2015 team in that it is a team that returned much of its starting cast from the season before. The 2013-2014 team made a remarkable run to the Final Four that hardly anybody expected, and the 2014-2015 team, which was nearly identical to the 2013-2014 team, followed it up with a national championship run of their own. Now this 2016-2017 team is composed of all five starters that were on the 2015-2016 team, a team that was blossoming into stardom and had finally found its chemistry towards the end of the season.

This season’s team is not a team that is going to get fancy and blow you away. They are averaging 75.0 points per game, which ranks in a tie for 148th best in the country, and they are allowing an average of 59.8 points per game, which ranks 4th best in the country. These statistics are extremely similar to those of the 2014-2015 team, which averaged 71.9 points per game, which ranked in a tie for 65th best in the country, and allowed an average of 58.2 points per game, which ranked 11th best in the country.

The similarities do not stop there. Both teams came into the season expecting big things because of what the similar teams the season before them did. They were expected to win the Big Ten Conference title and the Big Ten Conference Tournament championship game. The 2014-2015 team did both of those things, and the 2016-2017 team is currently in first place in the Big Ten Conference standings with a 19-3 overall record and an 8-1 conference record.

Both teams were expected to earn a high seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and make a deep run in it. The 2014-2015 earned a #1 seed and made it to the national championship game, and the 2016-2017 team is currently building up their resume to earn a high seed and make a deep run in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament as well.

There are still more similarities that we have not yet touched upon. Both teams were/are led by two star forwards. The 2014-2015 team, as I said earlier, was led by 2015 Wooden Award winner Frank Kaminsky (18.8 average points per game, 8.2 average rebounds per game), and Sam Dekker (13.9 average points per game, 5.5 average rebounds per game), and the 2016-2017 team is led by Ethan Happ (14.5 average points per game, 9.2 average rebounds per game), who is in contention for the 2017 Wooden Award, and Nigel Hayes (13.3 average points per game, 5.9 average rebounds per game). Both teams had/have incredible balance as well, with three players having averaged/averaging over 12.3 points per game, and five players having averaged/averaging over 7.5 points per game on both the 2014-2015 and 2016-2017 teams.

Finally, both teams have had valuable experience on big stages. Many of the players on the 2014-2015 team had experience playing in the Final Four the season before, and that experience proved to be valuable when it paid off during the late rounds 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, particularly in the Elite Eight against the Arizona Wildcats and the Final Four against Kentucky. Some of the players on this season’s team were involved in one or even both of Wisconsin’s Final Four runs over the past three seasons, and many of them were involved in their improbable Sweet Sixteen run last season. Experience has paid off in the past for Wisconsin Badgers basketball teams, and it is one thing that this season’s team has in common with the team that got to the national championship game in the 2014-2015 season.

While changes from season to season do exist in all sports, with college sports being the sports where most things change from season to season, and there will always be the inevitability of surprises in sports, this season’s Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team looks as good as any other team in college basketball in terms of having a chance to win the national championship game when it rolls around on Monday, April 3rd, 2017. They have the chemistry, the high standards, the leaders, the balance, the experience, and the will to win that has been proven time and time again, and not many teams around the country can say all of those great things.

-Asher Fair