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Looking ahead: Wisconsin Badgers

It’s never too early to start looking ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: the Wisconsin Badgers.

The Wisconsin Badgers capped a remarkable two-year stretch with a loss to the Duke Blue Devils in the national championship game last month. Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Four appearances did not yield a ring, but they stamped Bo Ryan’s legacy.

It was a fruitful chapter for the Badgers. The next one, however, offers promise -- the norm in Madison -- but less certainty.

Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky will earn slots in the first round of next month’s NBA draft. Duje Dukan, Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson -- a trio of veterans who played on two Final Four squads -- are gone now too. So Wisconsin has lost five of its top seven scorers from 2014-15.

For most programs, that kind of situation tempers expectations and turns the phrase “rebuilding year” into a campaign slogan. The patient fans await the day that a fresh batch of recruits mature and help their favorite team reach the top again. The anxious supporters panic as they anticipate immediate doom.

With the Badgers, as Jay Z once said, it’s just different.

This is a team that has never finished below fourth in the Big Ten or missed the NCAA tournament under Ryan. This is a team that turned an Illinois native who barely played his freshman season into the Wooden Award winner his senior year. This is a team that made Jackson, a mid-major recruit in high school, a starting point guard for a chunk of his career.

Under Ryan, the Badgers find a way. That’s not hype. That’s just honest.

But they’ve rarely incurred a wound this severe. Next year’s team will be younger. It won’t possess the same depth or talent.

And the Badgers will move forward. They always do.

What the immediate future holds: Nigel Hayes will evolve into a Big Ten player of the year candidate as the star of the show. Bronson Koenig is an elite point guard who, like Hayes, played backup to Dekker and Kaminsky. Next season, however, he’ll be the catalyst on both ends of the floor for Ryan’s squad.

Ryan will build around these two. They’re both strong anchors.

Hayes is comparable to Draymond Green, with his skill set and dramatic development. He’s a 6-foot-7 forward with that same cerebral approach. He averaged 12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists while playing in a frontcourt stacked with two potential lottery picks. He made 74 percent of his free throws, up from 58 percent the previous season. He didn’t take a 3-pointer in 2013-14. But he made 46 of 101 (40 percent) from beyond the arc in 2014-15.

As the center of the program now, Hayes will face new challenges. Opponents doubled Kaminsky and Dekker. Hayes will deal with that pressure next season. He’ll have to be a playmaker on both ends of the floor even though opposing teams will throw multiple players and looks at him.

Koenig will be one of the top point guards in the country. In six NCAA tournament games, he finished with 17 assists and just five turnovers. Koenig is a smart leader whom Ryan will trust to guide his offense and boost Wisconsin’s defensive efficiency. He hit 40 percent of his 3-pointers last season and 80 percent of his free throws.

Koenig and Hayes could both end the season as all-Big Ten first-teamers.

Now for the difficult part. Who will fill out the rest of the slots in Ryan’s rotation?

That’s a mystery.

Alex Illikainen is a 6-8, burly forward from Minnesota who should earn playing time next season. Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter will log more minutes too. Jordan Hill will return after redshirting last season.

Ryan usually relies on veterans but he might need freshmen like Brevin Pritzl, a 6-3 guard from De Pere, Wisconsin, to step up early.

Wisconsin has lost more talent than any team not named Kentucky, Duke or Arizona. Unlike those three schools, however, the Badgers don’t boast an elite recruiting class.

But they’ve encountered similar odds in the past, and they’ve always managed to reach the top tier of the Big Ten and secure a spot in the NCAA tournament. Hayes and Koenig comprise a strong duo that will help the Badgers maintain that streak.