MADISON - Dealing with expectations this fall will be a significant challenge for the University of Wisconsin basketball team.
They’ll return all but one player, guard Ben Brust, from a rotation that made a remarkable run to the school’s third Final Four earlier this year. First-team All-Big Ten forward Frank Kaminsky decided to put his NBA aspirations on hold, while ultra-talented forward Sam Dekker will be a year older. They’ll get a Josh Gasser that will be two years removed from a torn ACL and a point guard in Traevon Jackson that improved as the season went along. And that doesn’t take into account the reigning Sixth Man of the Year in the Big Ten – forward Nigel Hayes – and his classmate, Bronson Koenig, who flashed some of his immense potential in the first half of the national semifinal loss to Kentucky. But with that comes expectations.
A day after Connecticut cut the nets down at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, a number of national outlets put out their “way-too-early top 25s”
and most featured Wisconsin in the top five. Add in a Big Ten that will be looking to replace several big time stars and Bo Ryan’s club is a favorite to win the league title.
This idea of expectations isn’t new for UW. There were in a somewhat similar spot following their improbable run to the Final Four in 2000. They too lost in the national semifinals and returned nearly every key player from the year before. A big senior class led by Mike Kelley, Andy Kowske, Roy Boone and Mark Vershaw were expected to take UW back to the tournament and make a deep run. That didn’t happen. UW started the year No. 19 in Associated Press poll, saw a retiring Dick Bennett replaced as coach by assistant Brad Soderberg in December and finished the season 18-11, including being upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Georgia State.
Certainly the 2000 Final Four run was a much bigger surprise than what the Badgers were able to do last season as a No. 2 seed. But Bennett understands the expectations the team will be dealing with later this year.
“Kids are better prepared than we think,” Bennett said Saturday during an appearance on 100.5 ESPN. “I think once a big deal is made of it, then it’s up to the staff to say, ‘hey, look we know who we are.’ I think you address who you really are and try, in my opinion, to avoid (the), ‘Well, here’s what’s expected. Here is who we think we can be. Here is who we are.’”
Bennett doesn’t feel like the 2000-2001 team tried to be someone they weren’t. It wasn’t as if the team the year before lit the world on fire. They went into the tournament 18-13 and as a No. 8 seed.
The 2013-2014 team’s run, while thrilling for fans, wasn’t totally unexpected as the season unfolded. UW opened a school-best 16-0 and finished second in the Big Ten. They rolled into the tournament as a high seed and got to play their first two games in Milwaukee.
So while Bennett had to deal with the expectations stemming from the tournament, Ryan and his staff must contend with – fair or unfair -- a fan base that would be disappointed if a league title isn’t captured and a deep run in the tournament isn’t made.
“Expectations are good to a point,” said Bennett, who went 94-68 during his tenure (1995-2000) at UW. “You expect to be competitive. You expect to be successful. After a while you have to learn to deal with them. Perhaps that will be Wisconsin’s challenge this year … because fans expect you to reach the highest level once you’ve touched it.”
Overcoming that challenge, at least for Bennett, would be relying on his players and staff having tunnel vision and not allowing anything else to sway their attention from the ultimate goal.
“You deal with it day-by-day by focusing on the present and not dwell on what went on (before).” said Bennett, who returned to the sideline in 2003 with Washington State, coaching three more years before handing the keys to the program to his son, Tony. “There is a source of pride but it can also make you a little (complacent). Then if you deal with the future you become very anxious. So you deal with the present day, today’s practice an so on. At least that’s what I tried to do.”