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Top 25 countdown: No. 8 Wisconsin’s returning players will yield big results

(Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire)

The Wisconsin Badgers seemed to be in a downward spiral when former head coach Bo Ryan abruptly decided to retire on Dec. 15, 2015. Wisconsin had lost to the likes of Milwaukee and Western Illinois and were 7-5 at the time. So the Badgers suddenly had to adjust to life without Ryan and former stars Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker.

When Ryan stepped down, assistant Greg Gard took over as interim coach. And the first couple of games were rough. The Badgers were 2-4 in Gard’s first six games, including a five-point loss to Northwestern. But then came Jan. 17.

On that date, then No. 4 Michigan State came to the Kohl Center and left Madison, Wis., with a 77-76 loss. That win would turn around the Badgers’ season.

Wisconsin won 11 of its final 13 regular season games and reached the Sweet 16, where it came within seconds of defeating Notre Dame.

The interim tag was ultimately dropped from Gard’s title and the expectations are high entering this season. In a good turn for Gard, Wisconsin returns its entire starting lineup from last season and enters the year with a strong chance to make it to its third Final Four appearance in four seasons.

The Badgers’ offense will run through preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, Nigel Hayes.

Hayes entered the NBA Draft but pulled out prior to the deadline. The 6-foot-8 forward had an uneven junior year, even though he averaged 15.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. During his sophomore season, Hayes shot 39.6 percent behind the 3-point arc alongside Kaminsky and Dekker. However, last season without the two NBA first-rounders, Hayes shot a sluggish 29.3 percent.

While Hayes is going to be the man for Wisconsin this year, he may present to be a distraction.

When College Gameday traveled to Madison on Oct. 15 for the Wisconsin-Ohio State football game, Hayes stood with a sign stating, “Broke College Athlete, Anything Helps. Venmo: BrokeBadger1.”  The fan reaction from that was mixed, some good, some bad. Hayes has been one of the main activists when it comes to paying collegiate athletes. Although Gard has stated he doesn’t mind Hayes’ activism, it could pose as a sideshow during the season. And if the Badgers want to reach the lofty goals placed in front of them, Hayes has to live up to his billing of the Big Ten’s best player.

Alongside Hayes, Wisconsin returns the likes of Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown in the frontcourt.

Happ had a great redshirt freshman season last year. The 6-foot-9 forward averaged 12.4 points — good for third on the team — and 7.9 rebounds per game, while averaging 15.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in the NCAA tournament. If his tournament play is any indication of what’s to come for this season, Happ could be in store for an All-Big Ten year.

Now with Brown, had a solid junior campaign — he averaged 9.7 points and five rebounds per game last season. If he is able to build upon those statistics, Wisconsin could have one of the best frontcourts in the nation.

If you thought the Badgers’ frontcourt unit was good, its backcourt is on the same level.

Wisconsin returns senior guards Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter. The two guards combined for 20.6 points and 4.6 assists per contest last season. Koenig and Showalter will continue to provide consistent shooting and veteran presence. Also, Koenig isn’t afraid of taking big-time shots.

While the Badgers’ starting lineup certainly has the talent and experience to lead Wisconsin to the promised land this season, they will need to utilize its depth more than they did last year.

During the 2015-16 season, only 22.6 percent of the Badgers’ minutes came from its bench — that was good for No. 340 nationally. And looking at Wisconsin’s backups, it has some talent.

Guard Jordan Hill went from playing sparingly early last season to key reserve once Gard took over, and he has the ability to play any of the two guard positions. Next to Hill, the Badgers also has Khalil Iverson. The 6-foot-5 sophomore has do-it-all potential on the wing.

Iverson’s main issue last season was consistency. His possibly stepping into a larger role in the perimeter rotation could pay dividends for Wisconsin.

“Each team has lost some key people, whether it be an Indiana or even a Purdue,” said Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo during Big Ten media day. “Wisconsin has lost the least. So I think everybody has picked them to win it, and rightfully so.”

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