Check out this week's Open Jim podcast, where I answer these two featured mailbag questions.
hey Jim, is it still too early to get a pulse on how differently UW hockey recruiting is being done under the new coaching regime ?— Agri-voltaic Solar Joe (@polkatornado) May 15, 2023
When that Florida WR compared Graham Mertz to Joe Burrow, every Badgers fan I know did a spit take. At this point, Mertz is more likely to play in the XFL than the NFL.— Craig Smith (@smithcp1) May 22, 2023
But if Mertz does unlock his full potential at UF, what will that say about Paul Chryst and UW?
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Let's get this week's mailbag started with a couple University of Wisconsin men's basketball questions:
Last season the NCAA selection committee showed that they no longer care if teams schedule easy, now Gard has decided to schedule even harder. What's your opinion on his philosophy?— EricTheRed (@RealEricTheRed) May 23, 2023
I’m biased to some degree, because I think it’s good for college basketball and its fans to have meaningful games in November and December. UW will have no shortage of those types of games in 2023-24, when it wraps up a home-and-home series with Tennessee and begins one with Arizona.
Here’s how the Badgers’ nonconference schedule looks: Home games against Tennessee and Marquette, road games against Providence (Gavitt Games) and Arizona and two games in a holiday tournament in Florida that also includes Virginia, West Virginia and Southern Methodist. Add in five buy games, and that’s a wrap.
That’s a tough slate, to be sure, but I like the idea of an experienced team playing a challenging schedule. That should be one of the priorities — getting UW ready for the rigors of Big Ten play.
I get the idea of dialing it back a bit, especially since the 2023 NCAA Tournament selection committee rewarded some teams for piling up Quad 3 and 4 wins. But I don’t think any of us know if that’ll be the standard going forward, and I’d much prefer that the Badgers get a chance to build a quality resume early in the season.
Most of all, I’m happy for the fans. Tennessee will visit Madison this season, and Arizona will be here next season. Those are really enticing matchups that should draw people to the Kohl Center.
Seems like the talk for a big man for the badger basketball team is now 50/50 if we need one with the freshman coming into the program. If that is the case I say lets go after another athletic wing/shooter..someone that can make something happen. Can never have enough!!— aarondentz (@aarondentz) May 22, 2023
I’ll say this for what feels like the 256th time this offseason: I’d feel better about the Badgers’ 2023-24 roster if they’d added one more depth piece through the transfer portal. I also understand why that was a difficult mission for Greg Gard and his staff to accomplish, with a top six of Chucky Hepburn, Max Klesmit, Connor Essegian, St. Johns transfer AJ Storr, Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl taking up a good chunk of the projected minutes.
Finding a quality frontcourt player, with no clear path to a starting spot, always was going to be a tough proposition. So the Badgers, barring a late addition, will have to hope Gus Yalden and/or Nolan Winter are ready to go as true freshmen or Markus Ilver and/or Chris Hodges are ready to contribute as third-year players in the program.
Ditto for adding another backcourt piece. Hepburn will eat up most of the minutes at point guard, while Essegian, Klesmit and Storr give UW a good trio at the wing spots. It’s tough to sell a transfer on a big role with that many able bodies at those spots.
So while I agree with your premise — you can’t ever have enough scoring, and I wrote back in March that was the program’s biggest need heading into a pivotal offseason — I think the addition of Storr went a long way toward addressing that issue.
The optimism the new football coach exudes is unstoppable even for me, an eternal pessimist. I have seen it in questions to you. How are you going to keep us in line? When do playoff tickets go on sale?— David Knopf (@dkbrockton) May 23, 2023
Well, I wrote this column a few days after Fickell was hired and I stand by it: It’s a big jump from the AAC to the Big Ten and, while I don’t see any reason to believe this program will go backward under Fickell, there have been enough cautionary tales that I don’t think we should just assume he’ll immediately turn UW into a powerhouse.
Here’s another dose of reality: Fickell and Co. have a lot of work to do to chase down Michigan, Ohio State and, it appears, Penn State in the Big Ten. Plus, Southern Cal and UCLA only will make this conference stronger when they join the Big Ten in 2024.
So I’d hold off buying playoff tickets just yet. I like what I’ve seen from Fickell so far, but it’s early and the Badgers have some chasing to do to catch the elite teams in the Big Ten and beyond.
Do you see the Summer of 2023 as another round of Big Ten Conference musical chairs? (Expansion)— Erick McCormick☮ (@erickmccormick7) May 22, 2023
Be sure to check out this week’s podcast for my thoughts on expansion and the potential of the Big Ten becoming a superconference.
My sense is we’ll continue to hear expansion rumors floating around this offseason, but I don’t think the Big Ten is ready to make any big moves, especially after hiring a new commissioner.
The key conferences to watch are the ACC, where some big names apparently are looking around for potential landing spots, and what remains of the Pac-12. It does seem like we’re headed for another major round of changes, but I think it’ll be another year before that happens. Then again, the UCLA and USC moves came out of nowhere.
If Miami sweeps Boston, do the Bucks pull a George Costanza and let Coach Bud show up for training camp as if he was never fired ?— Steve Schuster (@SteveSc84123682) May 23, 2023
Alas, Miami didn’t finish off its sweep of Boston on Tuesday night. But the Heat are still in control of that series and could add the Celtics to a list of knockouts that already includes the Bucks and Knicks.
Did the Bucks overreact in firing Mike Budenholzer? Nah.
I think it was time for a reset in that organization, even though I didn’t think the Bucks would jettison Budenholzer two years after the franchise won an NBA title and less than three weeks after he helped guide the team to the best regular-season mark in the league. I figured the Bucks would run it back with Budenholzer and most of the 2022-23 roster intact, but general manager Jon Horst surprised me and now, reportedly, has narrowed his search down to three candidates: Kenny Atkinson, Adrian Griffin and Nick Nurse.
I can’t say I’m gaga about any of those three, but I think it was time for a new voice to be leading this group of players.
Is counsel on the hot seat?— Kbush (@Kbush69490826) May 22, 2023
I don’t think he is, nor do I think he should be.
The Brewers haven’t cooled off since an 18-9 start to the season, but I blame that more on injuries and a relatively young roster and not on the manager. Plus, the Brewers (26-22) are still in first place in a winnable NL Central, so I’m not sure why anyone would think Craig Counsell’s job would be in jeopardy at this point.
Besides, what candidates are out there that are better than Counsell?
How do you think the Packers will take advantage of Jordan Love's skill set? I keep hearing how they'll protect him in some ways but I don't see that happening. I think after this much time the chains are off.— PackFanatics (@PackFanatics) May 15, 2023
My guess is Matt LaFleur will do everything he can to find a comfort zone for Jordan Love. That includes relying on the running game to take some of the pressure off him, but I don’t think the Packers will be conservative with Love at quarterback. You can’t do that and win in this league.
I liked what LaFleur said during OTAs on Tuesday.
“It’s not like he’s a true rookie,” he said. “He’s seen a decent amount, especially being able to get the majority of the snaps this time of the year the last couple years. So we’re not coddling him in any sense of the word. We’re just installing our plays and whatever the defense presents, he’s got to react.”
These sessions, and certainly training camp, will be about finding out what Love is good at and playing to his strengths. I think it’ll be a bumpy ride at times, but I’m as curious as anyone to see what Love can do in his first season as a starter.
10 names to know after Wisconsin football's spring practices
QB Braedyn Locke
Year: Redshirt freshman
Weight: 192 pounds
Projected role: No. 2 QB
What to know: The Mississippi State transfer is set to be the Badgers’ backup quarterback behind Southern Methodist transfer Tanner Mordecai, but the gap between Locke and QB1 isn’t as wide as most thought. Locke is a smart decision-maker, accurate with the football and reads defenses well.
Notable quote: “He is the model of consistency and he's gotten better with each practice,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “And he has a tremendous — he and Tanner probably had the best overall understanding of the offense and just the game of football in general.”
RB Cade Yacamelli
Year: Redshirt freshman
Weight: 210 pounds
Projected role: In the mix for No. 3 running back
What to know: Yacamelli spent the first half of last season at safety before taking over as scout team running back. His speed, agility and receiving ability — UW once thought he could play receiver for the Badgers — make him an interesting changeup behind between-the-tackles runners like Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi. Yacamelli will be competing with a handful of others for limited RB3 reps.
Notable quote: “Cade, obviously, he's a tremendous athlete,” running back Grover Bortolotti said. “In the winter, he was just off the charts whether it be with speed or strength. He's a guy that's just a freak. Yeah, he hasn't played a lot of running back here, but he's definitely picking it up really well and he's eager to learn. The dude’s always in the playbook trying to learn, get better. So big things ahead for him, for sure.”
C Jake Renfro
Year: Redshirt junior
Weight: 316 pounds
Projected role: Starting center
What to know: Renfro only got through four spring practices before injuring his left foot/ankle, but he proved to be fairly indispensable — UW had inconsistent center-to-quarterback play since Renfro went down. He’s got impressive upper body strength and a good first step off the ball. His recovery would make the entire offensive line better.
Notable quote: “What's stood out to me about him, not even as a football player, just kind of as a guy, I was here when he took a visit,” left tackle Jack Nelson said. “And I kind of showed him around, and it was almost like instantaneous, like he was one of the guys. This O-line group was super, super tight, and it was almost like he's always been here. He just really came in, bought in.”
TE Jack Pugh
Year: Redshirt sophomore
Weight: 252 pounds
Projected role: In the mix for No. 1 tight end
What to know: UW’s new offensive system needs a vertical threat up the seam. Longo likes to use tight ends in this role because their size can create mismatches that defenses can’t handle, and Pugh looks like he may have the tools to fit this role. Injuries hampered his path to the field his first two years, but he’s got a chance to be a weapon in the Air Raid.
Notable quote: "I think he gives the balance of the ability to play a little bit out in space but also the balance to be inside and to be a pretty physical blocker,” Fickell said. “He's done nothing but do an incredible job in the winter through all the workout stuff, and then obviously coming out here every practice so far, he’s answered the bell. He plays tough.”
WR Keontez Lewis
Weight: 187 pounds
Projected role: No. 3 outside receiver
What to know: Lewis was the Badgers’ best and most-targeted deep threat last season, and his speed undoubtedly will be used to challenge defenses this fall. But he showed a wider range of skill and route-running ability this spring, particularly on the quick hitch routes that are meant to be catch-and-run opportunities for receivers.
Notable quote: “He's done a great job of catching contested balls,” Fickell said. “I think I've been as impressed with that as anything. Staying on your feet after some of those things, I think is the next step to it. But I think that's not just an athletic thing, that's just a confidence thing. And I think that the more and more that he does and we do with him through the spring and then into fall, I think he'll gain more and more of that confidence to stay on his feet to turn those really good plays into great plays.”
DL Darian Varner
Year: Redshirt junior
Weight: 278 pounds
Projected role: No. 3 defensive end
What to know: Varner didn’t get to show what he could do this spring as he recovered from a lower-leg injury, but his tape shows a lightning-fast rusher who has played all over the line. That skill set will fit perfectly with what Mike Tressel wants to do with the Badgers’ defense, and Varner brings proven pass rushing to a defensive line that is weakest in that area.
Notable quote: “I see him being a guy that can help us with a little bit more explosion, a little bit more pop, a little bit more quickness,” Fickell said. “He's different probably than some of the other guys that we've got that we’ll play with. But that variety gives us a chance to do some other things.”
ILB Jake Chaney
Weight: 233 pounds
Projected role: No. 3 inside linebacker
What to know: Chaney earned playing time last season in part because of his nose for the ball and his closing speed, and he continued to show those skills this spring. He spent most of his time working with the second defense, but Chaney was with the starting unit in the three-inside-linebacker groupings Tressel experimented with. Expect him to have a role in the rotation this season.
Notable quote: “He’s a 1, right?” Tressel said. “You can start saying, ‘Wait a second, how could there be more than two 1s?’ But he's a 1, and he's really impressed me because he has the ability to be really heavy-handed where he shocks offensive linemen and you see them stumble back 3 yards, and the next play slip them and make a play in the backfield.”
OLB Jeff Pietrowski Jr.
Year: Redshirt junior
Weight: 244 pounds
Projected role: No. 2 boundary outside linebacker, with a chance to start
What to know: The Michigan State transfer missed a little more than half of the spring after contracting mononucleosis, but he was impressive when he returned to the field the last three weeks of practices. His get-off is among the best of all the Badgers’ OLBs, and he has strong hand-fighting skills from his time as a defensive end with the Spartans.
Notable quote: “He is really on point with alignments and assignments,” OLBs coach Matt Mitchell said, “and he can see if a player makes a mistake. He's been a great teammate, pulling guys off to the side and really trying to help them out. So he's doing a little bit more one-on-one leading.”
CB Jason Maitre
Year: Redshirt senior
Weight: 188 pounds
Projected role: Starting nickelback
What to know: Homing in on one position was one of the benefits Maitre found upon his transfer from Boston College to UW. He played all over the defensive backfield for the Eagles, but the Badgers are asking him to lock down the top nickelback spot and be a stopper when offenses put their top receivers in the slot.
Notable quote: “Jason's a great player,” senior corner Alexander Smith said. “He shows it every day. We knew he was a great player coming from Boston College, but really just honing in on the details of the defense and the techniques. And at this point in our career, you play so much ball, it’s the little things that he needs to work on everyday, that we all need to work on every day, and I think that's what he's trying to hone in on.”
S Hunter Wohler
Weight: 211 pounds
Projected role: No. 1 boundary safety/dollar
What to know: The line above was difficult to fill because Wohler is going to be all over the field for the Badgers defense. He’s been seen covering deep halves as a safety, patrolling the middle of the field at linebacker depth and used as a blitzer this spring. He’s poised for his most productive season yet in a UW uniform.
Notable quote: “Him having really good football instincts allows him to play a little bit closer, still see it happen and react very quickly,” Tressel said. “You also have seen in the past that he's comfortable being up there close to the core and taking on blocks, and he's a physical, strong tackler. So what we're able to do with him a little bit, I would call it a hybrid position, but there's times and calls where he's gonna seem a little bit more like a true linebacker. There's times and calls where he's doing safety things. We're able to mix up some of the blitz paths from those types of positions that you might not be able to do without an obvious tell when he's coming from a normal safety (depth).”
Contact Jim Polzin at email@example.com.