An experienced core hoped to guide Wisconsin on a deep NCAA Tournament run last season, but as with every program in the country, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted those plans -- not to mention daily life.
Rejuvenated and only slightly retooled, the No. 7 Badgers will aim to begin their march to match expectations for a strong 2020-21 season as they host Eastern Illinois on Wednesday night.
Wisconsin finished 21-10 last season, and its 14-6 mark inside the Big Ten helped the Badgers tie Maryland and Michigan State for the conference's regular-season crown. The Badgers won their final eight regular-season games under Big Ten Coach of the Year Greg Gard.
With four starters back in the mix -- including senior forward Nate Reuvers (13.1 points per game) and senior center Micah Potter (10.1) -- Wisconsin is primed to assert itself against opponents from the inside.
Still, the 6-foot-11 Reuvers and 6-foot-10 Potter boast a solid outside game that figures to keep other teams guessing. The duo shot 33.7 and 45.1 percent from 3-point range last season, respectively.
Reuvers, who has started 80 of his 93 career games with Wisconsin, was a third-team all-Big Ten honoree as a junior and enters his final campaign on the 2021 Karl Malone Award watch list. He also was named to the preseason all-Big Ten team.
The Badgers also bring experience in the backcourt, led by redshirt senior point guard D'Mitrik Trice, whose 112 career games are tops on the team. A third-team all-Big Ten selection last season after averaging 9.8 points, 4.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game, Trice became the first player in program history to surpass 1,000 points, 300 rebounds and 300 assists for a career by his junior season. He is on the 2021 Bob Cousy Award watch list.
Among newcomers, 6-foot-9 freshman power forward Ben Carlson, a four-star recruit by numerous outlets, including ESPN, figures to be a factor in the rotation.
Gard said he and his staff intentionally designed a "much more rigorous" preseason conditioning plan as the program braces for likely unpredictability entering the season. The Badgers are slated to play six nonconference games before launching into a 20-game Big Ten schedule.
"Overall, with our nonconference schedule, we tried to create the safest environment possible and having so many games at home allows us to have a little more control over some of the variables," Gard said.
Eastern Illinois, part of the Ohio Valley Conference, finished 17-15 last season, with one of its losses coming 65-52 at Wisconsin on Nov. 8, 2019. The Panthers' returnees include senior guard Josiah Wallace, who averaged a team-best 15.6 points per game in 2019-20, and classmate Mack Smith, who has drilled a 3-pointer in 81 consecutive games, the longest active streak in NCAA Division I.
Smith is seven games shy of tying the all-time NCAA record in that category, 88, by Cory Bradford of Illinois.
Senior forward Jordan Skipper-Brown, a junior college transfer as a junior, is eager to take on an increased role for the Panthers. The 6-foot-6 Skipper-Brown averaged 4.5 rebounds a game last season while finishing eighth in the conference with 32 blocks.
"Rebounding and shot blocking, that is the role I would say I filled last season," he said.
Coach Jay Spoonhour, entering his 10th season as the longest-tenured coach in the conference, hopes Skipper-Brown also can emerge as a scorer with greater range. Skipper-Brown led the team on 64 percent shooting last season, but 37 of his 87 field goals were dunks.
--Field Level Media