MADISON - Losing Jon Leuer early in the conference season a year ago hurt the Badgers' Big Ten title hopes.
Coming off a convincing win against Purdue, the team learned Leuer would miss a number of weeks with a broken wrist, basically sidelining any hopes of staying atop the Big Ten leader board.
Though the team played well in Leuer's absence - UW compiled a 6-3 record without him - it came up one game shy of forcing a four-team tie for first in the league. Still, the fourth-place finish proved the Badgers were one of the Big Ten's elite teams.
While Leuer did get back into action starting with the trip to Minnesota late in the season, it wasn't clear whether the junior forward was able to get back to his pre-injury playing level. Eventually Wisconsin bowed out of the tournament with a sobering 87-69 loss to Cornell in the second round.
Fast-forward seven months and Leuer is back and ready to get after it again. He returns as UW's leading scorer (15.4 points), leading rebounder (5.8 rebounds) and second best assist man among returning players.
In Saturday's season-opening event at the UW Fieldhouse, Leuer was playing at a very high level. It seemed as though his injured wrist was left on the sidelines as he operated without any reservations.
Simply put, should Leuer stay healthy this season, he's an NBA caliber talent.
Though the team will go as Leuer goes, it will also need a big senior season from Keaton Nankivil. As one of the more athletic players on the entire roster, Nankivil has proven to be a difficult player to scheme for.
He has shown multiple times that he has range from the perimeter. He has proven on occasion that he can score from the block and he has also proven that he's an adequate defender in the paint against some of the better big men the league has to offer.
Should Nankivil continue to improve his footwork, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, he could be in line for a breakout senior season. He's probably the most difficult to project, though, because he hasn't necessarily shown that killer instinct like other players have in the past.
Looking at Bo Ryan's track record, though, it becomes obvious that players, particularly in their senior years, play at their highest level. Look at Brian Butch from a number of years ago, or Greg Stiemsma the year before that. Big men up front in Ryan's system take time to develop.
Hopefully, in the case of UW, Nankivil will follow that same path and become a reliable scoring option on a game-by-game basis.
Joining Leuer and Nankivil in the regular rotation is Tim Jarmusz. With Jarmusz, fans know what they are getting. They're getting a player that gets after it defensively, one that prides himself on defending some of the better players in the league.
They're also getting a guy that has struggled to find his shot, particularly from downtown, on a regular basis. Offensively, Jarmusz doesn't have to be great - there are other guys that can score - he just needs to be able to chip in each game with a couple of critical shots.
If his past track record is indicative, Jarmusz will get a number of looks in Ryan's system. He simply needs to hit more than he did a year ago and he could change the dynamic of the Badger offense and alleviate some pressure from Jordan Taylor, Leuer and Nankivil.
With the frontcourt in tact, it seems the backcourt has only one player with any sort of starting experience. Taylor, a point guard that has always succeeded with a high assist-to-turnover ratio, enters his junior season as a key cog in the UW basketball machine.
Looking a bit leaner, but every bit as much muscular, Taylor will be the guy the Badgers rely on late in the shot clock. He has shown over the years that he is capable of finding ways to score the ball off the dribble and that he has the ability to drive the lane. Both are crucial aspects for a point guard to possess.
In Saturday's scrimmage inside the field house, Taylor proved his mid-range came has the capability of being something special. He proved he is capable of hitting shots from the perimeter and most importantly, he proved he is an adequate defender.
Who will be his running mate, though?
Will it be Rob Wilson, an athletic swingman from Cleveland or will Ryan put Jarmusz at the two spot to make room for Ryan Evans?
Would it or could it be possible for one of the freshmen like Ben Brust, Josh Gasser or Duje Dukan break into the rotation that early?
All are legitimate questions that are difficult to answer at this juncture. If one had to guess, the likely backcourt running mate for Taylor would be Wilson. He offers a silky smooth jump shot with range from anywhere on the court. He's also shown a relentless ability to attack the rim.
Wilson's defense has always been the area of his game that's kept him on the sideline. If he dedicated himself to getting better at that throughout the off-season, Wilson could provide a spark offensively this season. If not, he will still see minutes, just not at the highest clip he could.
Check back throughout the day for more basketball previews. Media day is scheduled for Thursday.