By Satchel Price
It takes a special team with great players to win back-to-back Big Ten championships, reach back-to-back Final Fours and earn a trip to the National Championship Game. The Wisconsin Badgers, Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker were exactly that over the past two years – a special team led by two of the greatest players Madison has ever seen. Losing to Duke in the title game on Monday may have prevented the Badgers from taking the final step towards making history, but that shouldn’t undermine what was accomplished over the past couple seasons.
Prior to the arrival of Kaminsky and Dekker, Bo Ryan had established Wisconsin as a good-but-not-great program. The Badgers could compete regularly in the Big Ten, but would never match up with the true blue bloods of college hoops, both on the court and the recruiting trails. Other than a Final Four trip in 2000 – the program’s first since 1941, when it won its only national title – Wisconsin was always a second tier program trying to compete against teams with bigger names and better players.
That’s not the Wisconsin we saw over the past couple years, however, as Kaminsky developed into the national player of the year and Dekker lived up to expectations as the rare five-star recruit swayed by Ryan’s pitch. Suddenly, the Badgers were the team with the big names and elite players, even if they weren’t the hyped one-and-done stars of Kentucky or Duke. The Wildcats and Blue Devils might have top-5 picks, but you can expect Dekker and Kaminsky to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Now, John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski will be able to do what they do every year – reload with more one-and-done stars – but Ryan faces a much different challenge. The Badgers haven’t yet turned their newfound achievements into recruiting success, and are about to see the two best players Ryan has ever coached move on to bigger things. Where other elite programs are able to plug in new guys constantly, Wisconsin’s recent success feels far more fragile.
Ryan has shown that his strategy for the program works, but never on the scale of a regular title contender like Duke, Kentucky or Kansas. If the Badgers find themselves back in the national spotlight soon, it’ll likely be for the same reasons they got there recently: one touch brilliance, one touch luck.
The perfect storm in Madison
This year’s legendary Kentucky team came together in less than a year to nearly reach 40-0. Calipari may have worked for years earning the commitments of some of those recruits, but they spent less than 12 months together in Lexington before coalescing into a great team.
The Badgers, meanwhile, were a brilliant team years in the making, both on the recruiting trail and on the court. It all started in 2011, when Ryan convinced an under-appreciated 7-footer from Lisle, Ill., to head north and join his team. Kaminsky was the lowest rated player to commit to Wisconsin that year, and seemed far from the kind of guy who would eventually go toe-to-toe with a projected No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick.
Adding Kaminsky was the first domino, and his development from a freshman who rarely played into the Big Ten’s dominant big man was stunning. That’s where the luck comes in – you don’t watch a three-star recruit turn into a national player of the year and probable NBA first-round pick without some good fortune.
Dekker’s rise to stardom felt far more natural, on the other hand. A five-star forward out of Sheboygan, Wisc., Dekker decided to stay in his home state and join the Badgers a year after Kaminsky, who was still a relative unknown at the time. Where Kaminsky’s rise to greatness seemed completely out of place, Dekker’s was pretty much part of the plan.
One star was never going to be enough for the Badgers, though, not when other teams boast several future NBA players. Dekker needed a Kaminsky, and Kaminsky needed a Dekker. The good fortune involved here cannot be understated – sure, the 7-footer’s rise was unexpected, but how often does a gifted 6’9″ sharpshooter hail from a town best known as “The Brat Capital of the World?” You couldn’t make this stuff up.
The first run in 2014 was amazing, but that only set the stage for 2015. This year’s Badgers weren’t just good – according to KenPom.com, the team set the modern record for offensive efficiency. Keep in mind how many times you’ve heard about college basketball’s declining scoring when you consider that. Amid a landscape full of teams that couldn’t score or play a remotely appealing style of basketball, Wisconsin was expertly using its possessions to get guys like Kaminsky and Dekker open shots.
And when you leave guys like that open, they’ll hit them. Kaminsky finished the 2015 NCAA Tournament averaging 22 points on 56 percent shooting. Dekker averaged 19.2 points on 57 percent shooting. Here’s to guessing that a lot of NBA scouts came home from Indianapolis with glowing reports on those two guys.
That’s where Wisconsin finished this season: as one of the best teams in recent memory, getting beat by another incredible team from Duke.
The new pipeline is the old pipeline
It’s fair to say that Wisconsin won’t recruit guys like Dekker every year. Most of the team’s key contributors come more from the Kaminsky mold, four-year guys who grow each season and become quality players. Ryan already said after the title game that he doesn’t “rent” players, an apparent shot at the one-and-done practices used at some elite programs, and it seems unlikely Wisconsin will ever try to match the blue bloods on the recruiting trail.
That’s apparent from the past couple years, as Ryan has been content to follow the same recruiting strategies he’s always followed. Chasing big names was never how Wisconsin tried to compete, and even though some programs have tried to turn on-court success into recruiting gold, that’s not the case here. Wisconsin’s national recruiting class rankings have actually taken a step back since the middle of the 2000s.
After posting several top-40 recruiting classes in the mid-2000s, Wisconsin has regularly been on the outside in recent years. Even in 2012 when the team landed Dekker, an otherwise thin class led to a No. 45 national ranking. In 2014, Wisconsin’s recruiting class didn’t even finish in the top-100, making it easily the worst in over a decade.
This isn’t to say that Wisconsin has stopped adding talented players. The 2013 class, which ranked No. 45 nationally, added key contributors like guard Bronson Koenig, a four-star recruit, and forward Nigel Hayes, a three-star recruit. That big class, which featured six players, also helps explain why Ryan’s recruiting efforts seemingly took a step back the next year. For 2015, Ryan has been back to his usual solid work, with a pair of four-star recruits – Brevin Pritzl and Alex Illikainen – leading a class that ranks No. 37 currently.
It’s impressive, but not remotely on the same level of the top recruiting teams, which often earn commitments from multiple five-star recruits. Wisconsin is, as it has usually been, a mid-tier recruiting program.
The need for good luck
The challenges facing Wisconsin haven’t changed much despite back-to-back runs to the Final Four. The program still isn’t a recruiting juggernaut, and in the modern college game, that tends to separate the good programs from the great ones. The Badgers don’t appear to have made that leap, if their most recent recruiting efforts offer any indication.
Part of that stems from the school’s strong academic standards, part of it is geography and part of it is Ryan’s strategy. If Wisconsin was routinely churning out elite players like Dekker, it would probably be easier to keep them in-state. Convincing great players from out of state to head to Wisconsin over programs that might offer more NBA-focused development plans is a tough sell.
That means Wisconsin is back where it always was, a great second tier program that needs good luck to reach the top of the mountain. That happened over the past few years, between landing an elite prospect like Dekker and watching another bloom before our eyes like Kaminsky, but there’s a reason it took Ryan so long to put together this kind of team. It required the good fortune of Wisconsin’s best player in ages wanting to stay in state, as well as a decent player from a small Illinois town joining him in stardom.
Ryan built a special team over the past few years, and everyone involved deserves credit for taking Wisconsin basketball to such great heights. Getting the Badgers back to this spot won’t be easy, however.
(All recruiting class information provided by 247Sports.com)
Satchel Price is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., with a background covering sports, culture and technology. His work has appeared on SB Nation, ESPN.com and Baseball Prospectus, and you can follow him on Twitter at @satchelprice.