"Really, does it really matter who Bo has? Face it, they're going to win 25 games either way."
Those were the words of Tom Izzo, the Michigan State head coach, describing the outlook for conference for Wisconsin this season at Big Ten basketball media day on Halloween. And, though Izzo was joking, the man's got a point.
It's year No. 13 of the Bo Ryan Era in Madison, and in his previous dozen campaigns, the Badgers have won 25 games in half of them, plus reached at least 23 wins in three other seasons. It seems like death, taxes and a strong Wisconsin team are the three certainties in life.
But Izzo's point of not mattering who suits up for the Badgers is interesting as well. In his long tenure of cranking out winning teams at Wisconsin, only six players Ryan has coached have played a game in the NBA. So while Ryan doesn't have the top pro-bound talent like the Kansases, the Kentuckys or even the Michigan States, he's still boasting some of the best teams in the country.
So, is Izzo right? Will 2013-14 be the same? Eh, probably. This is Bo Ryan after all.
But there are challenges, as there are with plenty of other top teams, when it comes to replacing important departed pieces.
"I think it's going to be a challenge since we lost three senior starters that contributed a lot to this team," senior guard Ben Brust said at media day. "It's been good to have these two weeks of extra practice because we've been feeling each other out, getting to know each other's tendencies on the floor, getting to know how to work with each other on defense. We're still just working hard each day to find who we are as a team. I think we're going to find out sooner or later because we're going to have to win these games."
And those games Brust referred to are coming fast and furious. Wisconsin's very difficult non-conference schedule started Friday with a win over the Big East's St. John's. Next up is a date with No. 10 Florida on Tuesday, then a Dec. 4 trip to battle a ranked Virginia team in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge followed three days later by the annual game against in-state rival Marquette, a team with its eyes on the top 15.
"We have a very tough non-conference schedule," Ryan said. "And to start, it is very difficult. And I've had a long talk with our scheduler. But it's the way it plays out. So we'll be tested early and often. Strength of schedule will not be a problem. And if it's not the youngest team we've ever had since I've been there, it's close. We're trying to get old in a hurry. We will play a lot of teams that are used to winning, teams that are used to being on the left-hand side when the score comes out. So you hope that — I've always been big on preparing for whatever conference, whatever league I'm coaching in, and get ready for the Big Ten. So I'm sure that the opponents that we're playing non-conference will give us the test that we need, and how we respond to them, we'll see."
The Badgers finished 23-11 with a 12-6 conference record after a run to Big Ten tournament championship game, where they ultimately fell to Ohio State. They then were bounced in their first game of the NCAA tournament by Ole Miss, snapping a two-season streak of making the Sweet Sixteen.
At the helm
Bo Ryan is one of two Big Ten coaches (Michigan State's Tom Izzo is the other) still around from the 2001-02 season, which was Ryan's first at Wisconsin. As Izzo's comments alluded, Ryan rarely has any trouble piling up a ton of wins, and you have to go all the way back to 2005-06 for the last time he didn't reach the 20-win mark.
Departed and returned
As Brust mentioned, the Badgers saw three starters move on in the offseason: Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz. Those were Wisconsin's three leading rebounders a year ago, as well as Berggren and Evans being the Nos. 2 and 3 scorers. But Brust is back, a guard who has a great three-point shot (he knocked down 79 of them last season) and led the Badgers with 11.1 points per game. Joining him in the back court is junior guard Traevon Jackson, who started 29 games last year and led the team in assists and steals.
The Badgers welcome in six freshmen, headlined by point guard Bronson Koenig, the No. 73 recruit in the nation, as ranked by Rivals. Koenig was the Wisconsin high school player of the year last season.
Wisconsin's non-conference schedule is a tough one, with three preseason top-25 teams on the docket. The Badgers played all three — Florida, Virginia and Marquette — last season and lost all three games.
"You want to play really good teams in the non-conference schedule because you know this league is tough," Brust said. "For every game you play in the Big Ten season, it's going to be a challenge. I think playing a good, hard non-conference schedule is huge because it prepares you for what you're going to see later on."
The Badgers earned the No. 20 ranking in the preseason, and they'll be expected to do their usual Wisconsin thing: win a whole bunch of games. Bo Ryan figures to once again have his team right in the thick of the Big Ten race.
Wisconsin's next game comes Tuesday against Florida in Madison.
This is the 10th in a series of 2013-14 Big Ten basketball previews, which CSNChicago.com will be rolling out over the next few days as the college basketball season gets into full swing. Be sure to check out all the previews to get ready for your favorite Big Ten team's upcoming season.