Wisconsin's run at a third Final Four appearance in four years came to a stunning end late Friday evening against Florida. The Badgers, who had won 13 NCAA tournament games over the last four years - the highest mark in all of college basketball - saw their season came to an abrupt conclusion at the hands of Gators' guard Chris Chiozza, who swished a last-second, overtime 3-pointer to give Florida an 84-83 win in New York.
"Obviously, a very gut-wrenching game," said UW coach Greg Gard. "But as I told the team, the last 45 minutes are going to sting and hurt for quite awhile as we move forward and appreciate these seniors that have helped push us forward, this program forward, and it's in good hands and a good position as they exit."
Things will be very different for the Badgers next season as Gard looks to replace a four-man senior class that has registered 115 wins, equaling the school's highest four-year total.
A look at those moving parts …
REPLACING THE SENIOR CLASS
Heading into his third season as head coach, Gard and his staff will have a huge task ahead of them. Replacing four starters on the floor will be a tall order, but the leadership void left in the locker room will be equally as challenging.
Seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig - three-year starters for UW - ranked 1st and 2nd among all active players in NCAA tournament points scored heading into Friday's game. Forward Vitto Brown and guard Zak Showalter were also part of Wisconsin's most successful class in school history.
The Badgers will clearly build around sophomore Ethan Happ, the nation's only player to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals during conference play. A first-team All-Big Ten pick and the AP's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Happ is one of the most effective post players in the country but will need to get comfortable with being double-teamed, something he struggled with late in the season.
D'Mitrik Trice is likely penciled in to replace Koenig as the lead guard. The 6-foot, 180-pound freshman saw valuable time this season as he averaged 18.3 minutes per game. But his role will increase significantly in 2017-18, both on an off the court.
A replacement is not so clear at the other three spots. Redshirt freshman Brevin Pritzl, arguably the Badgers' top returning shooter, could start opposite Trice. Or Gard could turn to senior-to-be Jordan Hill, though his true value could be coming off the bench as a combo guard to spell either Trice or Pritzl.
At small forward, sophomore Khalil Iverson is an option, as is Alex Illikainen if the staff wanted to throw out a bigger lineup, though that is less likely. Iverson is the most athletic player on the returning roster but he'll have to improve his outside shot and decision making in order to earn starter's minutes. Illikainen saw his role diminish as the season wore and struggled with the pace of play and his confidence. And then there's Aleem Ford, a redshirt forward this season who has drawn rave reviews from those inside the program.
Opposite Happ, Charlie Thomas is the most proven option while 7-footer Andy Van Vliet is still a bit of a mystery. Adding strength and proving himself to be a reliable defender will be key for the big man from Belgium.
Way too early look at the 2017-2018 roster depth:
Wisconsin's 2017-18 roster
Andy Van Vliet
Last 4 yrs of #Badgers basketball will never be forgotten. Many contributed, but seniors Koenig, Hayes, Brown, Showalter at heart of it.
— Tom Oates (@TomOatesWSJ) March 25, 2017
And could Gard also lose his associate head coach? Lamont Paris has interviewed for head coaching jobs during this time the past two years and it appears only a matter of time before he's selected to lead a program. Should/when that happen, there will be no shortage of candidates to fill that empty seat on the bench.
WHO WILL CONTRIBUTE FROM THE 2017 CLASS?
While an ultra-productive senior class is exiting, a heralded freshmen group will arrive this summer. Kobe King, a 6-foot-4, 180-pound senior from La Crosse Central, was named Mr. Basketball in the state of Wisconsin by the WBCA last weekend. He'll be joined in the backcourt by four-star combo guard Brad Davison, who will likely be a needed ball-handler next season.
And then there's Nathan Reuvers, who appears to be a perfect fit for Wisconsin's style of play. At 6-foot-10 and 220 pounds, the Minnesota standout is an excellent shooter but will need to work on adding strength during his freshman season.
"All three of these student-athletes have a skill set, mindset and toughness about them that embodies what we are about as a basketball program," Gard said in November. "But more importantly, they each have the characteristics as human beings that we hold in the highest regard. We are very excited about each of their addition to our program and to our community."
I've said it before. Nate Reuvers is going to be an impact FR for Wisconsin. His 3-pt range at 6'11" will be great complement to Ethan Happ.
— Marcus R. Fuller (@Marcus_R_Fuller) March 25, 2017
RECRUITING THIS SPRING AND SUMMER
Wisconsin already has a great start to its 2018 class with a commitment from four-star in-state guard Tyler Herro, the No. 67 prospect in the country. The next big piece in the expected two-man group is Joey Hauser, a 6-foot-8, 210-pound prospect from Stevens Point. The four-star power forward is looking hard at UW, Marquette, Virginia, Michigan State and Iowa, but Duke, among others schools, will be monitoring him closely this offseason.
Should the Badgers miss on Hauser, the attention could turn to Isaiah Kelly, who has taken part in UW's last two summer advanced camps and already holds an offer. Likely needing a "big," Race Thompson, Jarvis Thomas-Omersa and Brandon Johns are also key targets the staff continues to evaluate.
In 2019, a cycle that could have as many as five available scholarships, Wisconsin has two offers out to Nobal Days and Matthew Hurt. And in 2020, in-state wing Jalen Johnson (Sun Prairie) could very well be Gard's top target. The 6-foot-6 freshman is expected to run with the Wisconsin Playground Warriors, a UW-friendly program, this spring and summer.
WILL WISCONSIN EXPLORE GRADUATE TRANSFER OPTIONS?
Wisconsin will have one open scholarship next season and the expected recipient will be senior-to-be Aaron Moesch. But that's assuming Gard wouldn't explore graduate transfer options.
Bo Ryan was vocal about his dislike for the "rent-a-player" option, but Gard appears willing to at least keep his eyes and ears open.
“It depends on the situation,” Gard said last March. “It would have to be the right fit, because you’re bringing someone in for such a short period of time that if it’s not the right fit, it upsets your apple cart, so to speak.
“This program has built a lot on chemistry and culture.”
The Badgers could look to add a proven shooter or a compliment to Happ in the post. Fitting off the court, though, will be the most important characteristic.
PSU announces F Payton Banks will graduate this spring + could play as a grad transfer in '17-18. Hmmm. #Badgers
— Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) March 24, 2017
AN OFFSEASON ADVANTAGE
The NCAA allows programs to travel internationally during the offseason once every four years and Wisconsin will do that this summer with exhibition games lined up in Australia and New Zealand, according to Jim Polzin.
That comes with this luxury: Ten extra practices during the summer school session with an inexperienced group that includes King, Davison and Reuvers. This couldn't have come at a better time for Wisconsin, which needs every available practice minute in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the 20th straight time next season.