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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Backcourt Depth

The loss of Michael Flowers, however temporary it may be, brings to light the issue Wisconsin has in recent years with players (primarily guards) leaving the program. It is a problem that every school faces from time to time, but one which had not bit the team in the butt yet. Until now.

Currently the team has one (!) active scholarship upperclassman capable of playing guard: Joe Krabbenhoft. Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon are good, but only sophomores slight of stature. Tim Jarmusz is fresh out of high school. Mo Cain and Tanner Bronson are former walk-ons. Even with Flowers, the Badgers aren't exactly deep here.

Yet I hesitate to throw up the white flag this early because time and time again, Bo Ryan has led Wisconsin to heights it has never seen before even after losing a scholarship athlete. In the recent past, this situation occurred three years in a row. I have wondered how the departures have truly impacted the current make-up of the program, so I took a closer look at each situation to refresh my memory.

In doing so, two lines of questioning surfaced. The first goes like this: (1) Was there a problem with the program that pushed unhappy players away? Does it still exist? Did this atmosphere and the decisions of the troubled players derail one season already and endanger the potential of this year's team? Then, the contrarian in me thought maybe (2) these recruits couldn't hack it -- either on the court, in the classroom or at home in their personal life. How did they wind up on campus to begin with? Did the staff just have a run of bad luck or simply whiff on guys in the recruiting game several years in a row?

Case #1 :: 2004-05
As a freshman, Boo Wade played in every game for arguably Bo's most talented team, which won the Big Ten title outright in 2002-03. Wade averaged 20 min/g the following year but missed two games due to legal and personal troubles that would cause him to take a leave of absence before leaving the university for good in January '05. His value as a defender and even a 3-point threat was undeniable.

Was Wade worth the six points that separated Wisconsin from North Carolina in their Elite Eight match-up that year? Possibly. He could have slowed down Ray Felton. With Sharif Chambliss, Clayton Hanson and Kammron Taylor at guard, though, the problem that game was stopping Sean May down low. That season that wound up wildly successful in most people's eyes anyway. Wade would have been a senior two season ago on a team that also lost Landry and Stiemsma midseason to academic and psychological issues. So while Wade would have been very valuable, again, his absence was not the biggest factor that derailed the Badgers' season.

You can play the what-if game for a long time on this one, but Wade was a good player and his loss a big blow to the program. Wisconsin survived.

Case #2 :: 2005-06
The DeAaron Williams story is not as tragic, but just as sad. He was not a proven commodity on the court for the Badgers, having redshirted in his only full year on campus. Personally, I thought he looked improved to start the ensuing year; decent enough in 8 min/g against mostly subpar opposition.

One newspaper famously labeled him the "10th man in a nine-man rotation." Leapfrogged for minutes by freshman Krabbenhoft and stuck behind veterans at guard, Williams lost his patience. When the hammer came down on Landry and Stiemsma, the Williams defection hurt a bit more. Though the team made the tournament without those three players, it was easily Bo's worst season as head coach.

In retrospect, Williams appeared to be a kid who came to play ball, had to wait around to get started and in the meantime, had no interest in being a student. After leaving UW, he played well for a JUCO back home, but bounced around because of his academic standing.

Wisconsin didn't seem to miss Williams last year en route to a number one ranking and a school-record 30 victories. You never know what could have happened had Williams chosen to stick it out. He was a slashing scorer and a former state high school dunk champ -- I don't see anyone close to that on UW's current roster. Provided he remained eligible, he could have filled a role for the Badgers this year. Unless ...

Case #3 :: 2006-07
Williams would have had to endure another season behind Tucker last year and beat out a new recruit, Phillip "Mickey" Perry.

If Williams was more level-headed, perhaps he would not have viewed the signing of Perry as being "recruited over." Perry took a redshirt in his first season, but was a better shooter than Williams and may indeed have gotten more PT. It would be interesting to know what kind of relationship Williams and Perry had in their short time together, and if the attitude of the former had an influence on the latter.

Like Williams, Perry had his own issues with academics. It's common knowledge that Perry was ineligible the second semester of his redshirt season in '05-'06. And like Williams, he absolutely could have helped this year's team at guard in the absence of Flowers. But it's not fun sitting behind freshmen when you know you can play. Keep an eye on Perry starting in January.

So while I think Bo simply faced a little bad luck (Wade) and even worse luck (Latrell Fleming), the fact that the coaching staff whiffed on Williams and Perry consecutively and hasn't missed a beat yet points more toward the progress the program has made in terms of national respect and perception than Wisconsin having problems that push players out the door.

Last year's two talented freshmen guards and the team's overall success turned Perry's departure into little more than an afterthought. Wisconsin's basketball program has grown into a national power that is capable of attracting more talented players than it did even two or three years ago when Bo's boys were winning Big Ten titles. That kind of sustained excellence gets most recruits excited, but others simply value playing time more than winning.

These days, when UW is off the mark with a recruit, there is an even better player anxious to take his place. A good season, with or without Flowers, will prove it.

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