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3 questions facing the Wisconsin men's basketball program this offseason

Fans are wondering what the roster will look like next season, who will lead the team and where the scoring will come from.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament- Wisconsin vs Michigan State
Wisconsin Badgers forward Tyler Wahl (5) shoots the ball while Michigan State Spartans guard A.J. Hoggard (11) forward Malik Hall (25) and forward Julius Marble II (34) defend in the first half Friday, March 11, 2022, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today Sports

MADISON — The University of Wisconsin men's basketball team played its last game of the 2021-22 season Sunday, March 20, but it already is looking toward improvement for next season.

A 54-49 loss to Iowa State on Sunday, March 20, in a second-round game at Fiserv Forum will be a difficult pill to swallow, but the reasons for it shouldn't shock anyone who watched this group overachieve this season.

UW coach Greg Gard said he wouldn't be surprised if players were hitting the gym for personal workouts days after this season ended.

The Badgers likely will look to the transfer portal to fill holes on its roster with at least four players leaving the program. That doesn't include Johnny Davis, the sophomore star who was a consensus all-American and the Big Ten Player of the Year. The sophomore is expected to leave early to enter the NBA draft.

But there was a lot of uncertainty for the Badgers last season, when they had seven players leave, and still managed to win a share of the Big Ten regular-season title this season.

Here are three questions heading into the offseason:

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What will the Badgers roster look like?

At least four Badgers players will not be back next season. Brad Davison and Chris Vogt exhausted their eligibility, while redshirt junior Carter Higginbottom, who didn't have a scholarship, plans to graduate at the end of the year and will not return. Freshman Matthew Mors entered the transfer portal Monday.

Davison was granted an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19, so he did not count toward UW's scholarship limit this season. Vogt's scholarship will be filled by incoming sharpshooter Connor Essegian, who signed a letter of intent to play for the Badgers in November. UW could look to the transfer portal to fill Mors' spot.

Another scholarship spot would open if Davis declares for the NBA draft. He has yet to announce his decision, but he is projected to be a top-10 pick this summer if he forgoes the remainder of his eligibility.

"I didn't want the season to end this way," Davis said after the loss Sunday. "For right now, I just want to cherish these past two years I've had at Wisconsin and finish school this semester. I just want to stay in the moment for right now."

Three starters — Steven Crowl, Chucky Hepburn and Tyler Wahl — are expected to return next season. Also expected to return are Jahcobi Neath, Jordan Davis, Ben Carlson, Lorne Bowman II, Carter Gilmore, Chris Hodges and Markus Ilver.

Adding depth will be important. The Badgers lacked bench production, getting only 13.6% of their points this season from the players who didn't typically start.

Point guard will be a position to watch. The Badgers had two freshman point guards — Hepburn and Bowman — but Bowman hasn't physically been with the team since Feb. 15 due to what UW called a non-COVID-19 illness. He missed the final seven games of the season.

The Badgers' lack of depth at the spot became clear in their season-ending loss. Hepburn suffered a leg injury during the first half and didn't return. Bowman wasn't an option, so Davison was forced into the role.

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"We had Lorne Bowman who had been with us for three quarters of the season, so we're down another point guard," Gard said following Sunday's loss. "We had to make shifts by committee a little bit."

The Badgers would love to avoid a similar situation next season by adding depth.

Who will lead the team?

Davis made an incredible jump from his freshman to sophomore season, going from scoring 7.0 points and 4.1 rebounds over 24.4 minutes per game as a freshman to 19.7 points and 8.2 rebounds over 34.2 minutes this season. The consensus all-American had the ability to take over games, like when he scored UW's final 14 points in its win over Colgate in its NCAA Tournament opener.

It's highly unlikely anyone on the roster blossoms into the Big Ten Player of the Year next season, although Davis didn't make the 11-member preseason all-Big Ten team.

Wahl, a junior forward, was a captain on this season's team, so he likely will continue to fill that leadership role both on and off the court next season. His teammates have described him as the Badgers' most versatile defender and earned honorable mention on the all-Big Ten teams this season.

Wahl averaged 11.4 points and 5.9 rebounds this season. He scored at least 15 points in a game 10 times, including against Colgate in the NCAA Tournament. He shot a team-best 51.6% from the field but struggled from long range, going 6 of 37 on 3-pointers.

Hepburn also likely will step into a more prominent role next season. He was third on the team behind Davis and Davison in minutes players at 31 per game. He describes himself as a pass-first point guard but proved he came score in big moments. His banked 3-pointer against Purdue secured a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.

Hepburn ran the defense and controlled the pace of the game as a freshman. His 36 steals this season tied for second on the team behind Wahl's 37.

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Crowl is also an option to take on more of a leadership role with the team. The sophomore center started every game this season after only playing 36 minutes over 12 games his freshman season.

Crowl said he struggled with confidence throughout the season, but with a year under his belt and the offseason to improve Crowl could be a bigger presence for the Badgers. He scored at least 20 points in a game twice but was held to less than 10 points in UW's final six games.

Gard said he likes to have the team led by committee. This season it was Davison, Davis and Wahl, and Wahl, Crowl and Hepburn appear the best options to take on that role next season.

Where will the scoring come from?

The Badgers likely will lose their leading scorers in Davis and Davison, who combined for 33.8 points per game this season. The pair accounted for 854 of the 1,931 shots (44.4%) the Badgers took this season.

UW was the worst shooting team in the Big Ten this season, connecting on 42.2% of its shots. It also was last in the conference in 3-point shooting at 30.6%

Wahl is the leading scorer among players expected to return next season. He averaged 11.4 points and had three games with at least 20 points. He scored a career-high 23 points against Rutgers on Feb. 12.

Gard said multiple times during the season that the Badgers didn't need Hepburn or Crowl to be big scoring presences this season. That likely will change next season.

Crowl had fewer attempts than his fellow starters but connected on 49.6% of his shots, including 31.7% from 3-point range. Hepburn was the best 3-point shooter among the starters, hitting 34.8% but had 113 fewer attempts than Davison, who made 34.7% of his 3-pointers.

The Badgers' glaring hole is the inability to hit from 3-point range. It would help to have back Bowman because he was the best 3-point shooter off the bench, going 12 of 30 from downtown. Gard said after Sunday's loss that he's hopeful Bowman will be on the court next season, but that's far from a guarantee.

Essegian is an incoming shooting guard for the Badgers who is averaging 26.8 points per game while shooting 69% overall and 43% from 3-point range at Central Noble High School in Indiana.

© 2022 The Wisconsin State Journal

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