MADISON, Wis. - It's not a streak, so much as it is an expectation. The Wisconsin Badgers have finished no lower than fourth in the Big Ten in each of head coach Bo Ryan's 12 seasons in Madison.
And with their 2013-2014 season set to tip off in less than a month, the Badgers aren't going to revise their expectations any time soon.
"We don't talk about [the streak], because it's expected of us," sophomore forward Sam Dekker said Friday at Wisconsin's local media day. "When you're committing here and coming here as a freshman you're coming in to a realm where you're expected to be good and you're expected to have great teams.
"We carry that with great pride. We see the banners of Big Ten titles and NCAA tournament appearances."
But the Badgers still need to replace some important pieces from last year's team if they want to keep their streak of top-tier conference finishes and NCAA Tournament appearances alive.
Above all else, the Badgers are looking for younger players to step up in the frontcourt after forwards Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz all graduated after last season. The trio accounted for 41.6 percent of the Badgers' total points last season, as well as 57.3 percent of the team's total rebounds.
That's a lot of production to replace, but the Badgers have a couple of candidates in mind who could step in to those roles. Forward Frank Kaminsky is back for his junior season after backing up Berggren last year, as is Dekker, who broke on to the Big Ten stage as a true freshman last year.
Dekker was third on the team in scoring as a freshman, despite not starting any games for the Badgers and finishing sixth on the team in minutes played. And with a small senior class returning to the team, some of the responsibility will probably fall to Dekker, who's already getting mentions as a potential NBA draft pick as early as after this season.
"I'm going to try to be a good leader and lead by example with my play," Dekker said.
The Badgers will also get a boost from a familiar face returning to the lineup. Josh Gasser was expected to start at point guard for the Badgers last season, but tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the preseason and missed the whole season.
But with a year's worth of rehab under his belt, Gasser said he's ready to get back on the court and help the Badgers- no matter where the coaching staff ultimately decides to put him.
"I feel more confident each day," Gasser said Monday. "I'm definitely happy with where I'm at. The trainers and doctors are happy with the way my knee is responding. It still gets sore, but I'm able to play and it's getting better each day."
But even with Gasser back and competing with Traevon Jackson, George Marshall, and others in Wisconsin's deep backcourt, they'll likely need another young player or two to step up and help the team stay competitive in what should be another tough year in the Big Ten.
And even though it's still early in the grand scheme of things, much of the preseason buzz has centered around Nigel Hayes, a 6-foot-7 forward from Toledo, Ohio.
"Nigel Hayes has been a big part of what we've done this summer," Dekker said. "He's got such a good body [where] he can bang around and get rebounds whenever he wants. There's been times where he goes up against me and makes me look terrible, but there's other times where I use my length and he doesn't realize that he could just go through me."
Hayes and the five other true freshmen who are joining the Badgers this year will have to adjust to playing in the rough and tumble Big Ten, which is set to feature at least six teams who could at least make a case to be ranked early in the season.
But even with the Big Ten set to be one of the top conferences in the country again, the Badgers seemed confident that they have what it takes to keep their streak of conference finishes and tournament appearances going.
"Our goal is to win the Big Ten, so I obviously think it's realistic," Gasser said. "I have every belief that we can do that. Every game in the Big Ten is going to be a battle, and if we don't bring it every night we won't come out on top."
And with several raw but talented players set to take on bigger roles, the Badgers also have their eyes on some even loftier goals as well.
"We don't want to be on the list for an [NCAA tournament] appearance, we want to be on the list for doing something great," Dekker said. "We're playing for that black banner in the Nicholas-Johnson Pavilion that says 'national title.'"
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