The year of 2017 A.D. was another successful sojourn around the sun for Wisconsin sports teams. The professional teams had thrilling playoff games (or in the case of the Milwaukee Brewers: a thrilling playoff chase), two college basketball teams made the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and the Wisconsin Badgers won a pair of New Year’s Six bowl games. 2017 also marked the inaugural campaign of a new professional basketball team: the Wisconsin Herd of the NBA G League. Though no championships were won, 2017 gave us plenty to cheer about.
This year is shaping up to be a springboard for 2019 and beyond; or, if things go poorly, a sinkhole. Hopefully the former. Here are five questions for 2018, the answers to which will impact Wisconsin sports for many years to come.
How will the Green Bay Packers’ coaching/front office carousel end?
Former general manager Ted Thompson and former defensive coordinator Dom Capers should be celebrated for their role in winning Super Bowl 45. Thompson had the foresight to draft Aaron Rodgers and Capers had the courage to stay aggressive during the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ final drive in that game. Since then Thompson has not done enough to build a supporting cast for Aaron Rodgers and Capers presided over some monumentally bad defensive performances in the playoffs. It was time for a change. Who will be the new general manager and who will be the next defensive coordinator? The answer could determine if Rodgers wins another Super Bowl in Green Bay.
How will the Milwaukee Brewers build on their 86-win season?
Success in sports is not always linear. Rebuilding teams often take a step back before they step forward, and that may be the case with the Brew Crew. A lot went right last season that will be difficult to duplicate. Moreover, the 2018 squad will start behind the 8-ball as ace pitcher Jimmy Nelson recovers from injury and two of their best relievers were lost to free agency. For these reasons 86+ wins might not happen in 2018. That said, the long-term success of the Brewers depends on their farm system and improving their core of young talent, so any injury or free agency setbacks should be temporary.
Another key to success is how their 2017 breakout stars fare in 2018. Travis Shaw, Eric Thames, and Corey Knebel were unexpectedly terrific last season. If they can prove 2017 was not a fluke then big things (e.g. a return to October) could be in store for 2019.
Will the Milwaukee Bucks win their first playoff series since 2001?
A wise man once said “success in sports is not always linear.” While true, it would be disappointing if the Bucks do not improve on last season’s promising campaign. To do this they will need to win more than 42 games and make it to the second round of the playoffs. When you look at the talent on their roster – and the imminent return of Jabari Parker – this should be eminently doable. Now, the Bucks will not win a championship this season, so they could miss the playoffs still be fine. At the same time, playoff experience is quite helpful for winning playoff games. Finally winning a playoff series would be stepping stone to the bigger and better things we all hope are in store for the Bucks.
Will the state of Wisconsin be represented in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament?
The Badger state has sent a delegation to the NCAA tournament without interruption since 1999. Not coincidentally, the Wisconsin Badgers have made the tournament every year since then. All good things must come to an end and the Badgers’ tournament streak appears to be one of them. The Badgers missing the tournament falls into the “I’ll believe it when I see it” category, but the outlook this season is not so good. That said, this does not mean the state of Wisconsin will be without an NCAA tournament team.
The best hope of keeping the state’s streak alive likely resides with the Marquette Golden Eagles. Their formidable backcourt of Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard can do a passable impersonation of the Golden State Warriors from behind the arc, which might be enough to get them back into the dance. Furthermore, head coach Steve Wojciechowski has assembled a roster full of young and dynamic talent. If this current team coalesces into a tournament team, the 2019 Final Four Hype train will leave the station.
Was the Orange Bowl a sign of things to come for Alex Hornibrook?
True story: playing quarterback is hard. As such, learning to play quarterback at a high level takes time and requires patience. Alex Hornibrook’s tenure as Wisconsin QB has not always been pretty, but it was a thing of beauty against the Miami Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl. In 2018 the Badgers will be poised to win the Big Ten West for the third consecutive season, but to take the next step and win a Big Ten Championship Game they will need better, more consistent play from their signal caller. Their offense will be stacked at skill positions and Jonathan Taylor will be a pre-season candidate for the Heisman Trophy, so if Hornibrook can play at an Orange Bowl level with regularity the Badgers might finally go from playoff contender to playoff participant.