Wisconsin basketball is finally back! After a disappointing 2020-21 campaign, the Badgers will take the floor tonight when the St. Francis Terriers come to town.
With so much turnover from last season to this season, there are a lot of unknowns with this young team. They are losing almost 70% of their scoring from last year. The lone players returning who really played some meaningful minutes last year are Brad Davison, Johnny Davis, and Tyler Wahl. You could put Steven Crowl and Ben Carlson in there, but they played just a combined 19 games and mostly appeared in garbage time in non-conference games or blowouts.
The expectations for this team are as low as I can ever remember them being. A lot of pundits are picking the Wisconsin basketball team to finish around 10th in the conference this year.
But low expectations aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Last year, the Badgers won 18 games and went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, falling to Baylor, the future champs. But that season felt like a letdown because the expectations for that squad were pretty high. They ended the 2019-2020 season on a hot streak, winning the Big Ten in the regular season, and returned almost every player the next year.
Now, with expectations being as low as they are, there’s really nowhere to go but up. Do I think this team realistically competes for the Big Ten title? No. But I think this group could surprise some people and I don’t think an NCAA Tournament appearance is out of the realm of possibility.
But before we can start talking about that, we have the first game of the year to talk about. In their first game of the year, the Badgers will take on St. Francis out of the Northeast Conference.
Last year, the Terriers went 9-10 overall and 5-5 in the conference. Like the Badgers, the Terriers are undergoing a bit of a rebuild themselves. They are returning just 40.3% minutes played and 34.7% of their scoring from last year. Their top-scoring returner is senior guard Rob Higgins, who averaged 11.2 points per game last season. Alongside Higgins is senior Vuk Stevanich, who averaged 6.3 points per game.
As a team, the Terriers averaged 78.4 points per game last year but gave up 80.1 points per game.
The Terriers bolstered their frontcourt by adding Jack Hemphill, from Boston University through the transfer portal. Hemphill stands 6’9″ and is the tallest player on St. Francis. Stevanich is the next tallest at 6’8″.
That’s where the Wisconsin basketball team will have an advantage. The Badgers have five players listed at 6’9″ or taller, including Chris Vogt and Steven Crowl, who are both 7’0″. I would look for Wisconsin to work the ball into the post and get the big guys involved early and often tonight.
Tonight is also going to be a big night for Johnny Davis. Even though there aren’t a ton of expectations for the Badgers as a team, there are some high expectations on the sophomore playmaker who played for Team USA’s FIBA U19 team this summer. With an even bigger role this year, look for him to leave his mark on this game early tonight.
Another thing to look forward to tonight is the play of freshman guard Chucky Hepburn. He is going to be the first true freshman to start a season opener since Devin Harris in 2001. I wouldn’t expect a ton of scoring out of him but watch for the way he manages the game and gets other guys involved.
Hopefully, this game goes much like most non-conference season-openers go and the Badgers walk all over the Terriers and have plenty of time to empty the bench in the second half.
Realistically, I think this game may end up being a little closer than we’d hope. I think it’s going to take a few games for this group to really start to gel and get into a rhythm. In the end, I still think the Wisconsin basketball team is too talented and physical for the Terriers.
Wisconsin 72 – St. Francis 61