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Badgers, with 92% of scoring back, believe experience and depth should help them contend in Big Ten

Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard speaks during Big Ten NCAA college basketball Media Days Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s magic touch in close games started to wear off late last season and led to a rare absence from the NCAA Tournament.

The Badgers are confident their improved depth will help them recapture that winning formula.

Wisconsin tied for the Big Ten regular-season title in 2021-22 thanks in part to its phenomenal 15-4 record in games that reached overtime or were decided by six points or fewer. The Badgers raced to a 6-2 start in those types of games last season but went just 7-8 the rest of the way while ending up in the NIT.

The Badgers return just about everyone from that team and also brought in some reinforcements, headed by St. John’s transfer AJ Storr. That gives the Badgers confidence they’ll be fresher and more likely to thrive down the stretch of close games.

“The depth is the biggest thing that jumps out with this team,” coach Greg Gard said. “We’re deeper, bigger and more athletic than we’ve been in a while.”

Wisconsin returns 92% of its scoring - the highest percentage for any Power Five team - from the squad that went 20-15 and reached the NIT last season. The Badgers bring back their top five scorers in point guard Chucky Hepburn (12.2 points per game), 7-footer Steven Crowl (12.1), Connor Essegian (11.7), Wahl (11.3) and Max Klesmit (8.4).

Wahl, who has made 85 career starts, returned for a fifth year even after Wisconsin paid tribute to him in a ceremony before its 2022-23 regular-season home finale.

“Once the season really ended, it was an easy decision,” Wahl said. “All my buddies are here.”

And with so many of them still around, Wahl agrees with Gard’s assessment that the Badgers have the type of depth they lacked last season.

“It’s a huge difference,” he said. “It’s night and day.”

MOMENTUM FROM POSTSEASON

Last year marked just the second time in the last 24 NCAA tournaments that Wisconsin was left out of the field, but the Badgers believe they benefited from their deep NIT run. Wisconsin beat Bradley, Liberty and Oregon in the NIT before falling 56-54 to eventual champion North Texas in the semifinals at Las Vegas.

“Just playing in the NIT was good for us all around, to get that bad sour taste out of our mouth and kind of give us a head start going into this year,” Crowl said. “Even though we didn’t win it, we made it deep in the NIT and I think everybody played well.”

STORR’S STAR POWER

Storr’s arrival from St. John’s gives Wisconsin the type of athleticism it traditionally has lacked. The 6-foot-7 guard made the Big East’s all-freshman team last season and averaged 8.8 points, including 10.5 points in Big East competition. He shot 40.4% from 3-point range.

HEPBURN RUNS THE SHOW

Hepburn is back for a third season as Wisconsin’s starting point guard. As a freshman, Hepburn made the 3-pointer against Purdue that enabled Wisconsin to clinch a share of the Big Ten title. He followed that up by averaging 12.2 points and 2.8 assists while shooting just over 40% from 3-point range last season.

EMERGING ESSEGIAN

Essegian is back after becoming just the fifth Wisconsin player over the last 25 seasons to post a double-figure scoring average as a freshman. The others are Devin Harris (2001-02), Alando Tucker (2002-03), Ethan Happ (2015-16) and Brad Davison (2017-18). His 69 3-pointers last season were the most ever by a Wisconsin freshman.

THE SCHEDULE

Wisconsin opens Nov. 6 by hosting Arkansas State. The Badgers’ nonconference schedule includes home games Nov. 9 with No. 9 Tennessee and Dec. 2 with No. 5 Marquette plus road matchups Nov. 14 at Providence and Dec. 9 at No. 12 Arizona. The Badgers’ Big Ten opener is Dec. 5 at No. 4 Michigan State.

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