In 2014-15, Wisconsin entered one of the most highly anticipated seasons in program history.
The Badgers returned four of five starters from a team that fell in the final six seconds in a heartbreaker to Kentucky in the National Semifinal and were primed to make another push to the Final Four.
They did not disappoint.
Wisconsin reached the National Championship for the first time since 1941, 74 years, this time knocking off a 38-0 Kentucky team. Although the Badgers fell to Duke in the title game, it was a monumental step for a program that’s now knocking on the doorstep of some of college basketball’s elite programs.
Two years later, the Badgers find themselves in a similar position heading into the 2016-17 season.
Wisconsin returns every scholarship player from last year, a team that rallied from a 9-9 start to finish in third place in the Big Ten and reached the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in six years — the only program in the country that can say that.
The key piece to Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Four teams, All-American and 2014-15 National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky, understands how to manage those lofty expectations.
“I don’t think it will be too big of a challenge. When they were young, they saw how we took care of it, how we approached it in the summer,” Kaminsky said. “They’ve seen how it should be done. If they learned anything from us, it’s that you can’t give into those expectations. You have to go perform and play the way you know how and things will work out in the end. They’ll do well. They have good leaders in Bronson and Nigel. Ethan really came on last year. Vitto is looking to have another good year. It will be interesting to see.”
Hayes, Koenig, Happ, Brown, and Zak Showalter were all starters last season and the Badgers also get deeper, with the addition of sophomore Andy Van Vliet and redshirt freshman Brevin Pritzl off the bench along with Jordan Hill, Khalil Iverson, Charlie Thomas, and Alex Illikainen.
However, Hayes and Koenig are a big part of the reason Wisconsin enters the 2016-17 season as favorites in the Big Ten and a national title threat.
In the off-season, Nigel Hayes, the first-team All-Big Ten performer tested the NBA waters, attending the draft combine before opting to return for his senior season. Hayes averaged a team-high 15.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, and also a team-best 3.0 assists per game, but was not projected to be selected even in the second round by most NBA experts.
Wisconsin can perhaps thank Kaminsky, who also passed on the NBA after his junior season, for helping steer Hayes back to college for one more season.
“If I would have left and gave up on my last year of college, what would I have regretted more? If you go to the NBA and you’re going to be a first round pick, there’s guarantees,” Kaminsky said. “If your family needs money and you have to go — but to come back in a situation where I was going to be the best player on a really good team, can you pass that up? He wants to go back and he wants to do something really good for the school. He had a good year last year, but he can improve and get better and I think he wants to prove to everyone that he can.”
Wisconsin will be led by second-year head coach Greg Gard.
After taking over for Bo Ryan at the mid-way point of the season, Gard led Wisconsin to a 15-8 record, including wins in 13 of their last 17 games and four wins over top 10 ranked teams, after the Badgers started 9-9 under Bo Ryan. Gard was also named the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year for helping spark Wisconsin’s unexpected turnaround.
“Coach Gard was ready to take over,” said Kaminsky. “Once he took it over, he proved to everyone that he could figure it out.”
Prior to the 2013-14 season, Wisconsin had just two Final Four appearances in program history. The Badgers have since doubled that total following Kaminsky’s career and have never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten for 16 consecutive seasons, the longest streak in conference history.
Wisconsin hasn’t missed a NCAA Tournament since 1999, the fifth-longest active streak in the country. Wisconsin has also won 15 NCAA Tournament games since 2011, trailing only Kentucky which has 20. With three Final Four appearances since 2000, the Badgers are just one of 10 schools to accomplish that feat.
A big part of Wisconsin climbing the national ladder is Kaminsky. Kaminsky says the Badgers have gone to a program of modest, but consistent expectations, to a national contender.
“When I got there, it was just a team that made the tournament every year,” Kaminsky stated. “I wanted to win a championship in college. It was definitely a lofty goal when I got there, especially someone of my caliber. I knew we’d have a good team and we’d go far, but the last few years, it’s completely changed.”