In addition, this year's Badgers are expected to feature two new faces: redshirt freshman George Marshall and freshman Sam Dekker. One of the most interesting questions coming into the season is how much playing time these two freshman will actually get, given Bo Ryan's historical preference for playing upperclassmen.
The question got a little bit less interesting last week, when Mike Bruesewitz tore up his shin, putting him on the shelf for 4-6 weeks. Now it is very likely that Dekker will get significant minutes, at least while Bruiser is on the mend.
Still, I wanted to discuss the premise above, namely the idea that Bo Ryan doesn't like to play freshman. Is it true? I would say that it is not true that Bo Ryan is biased against underclassmen. Rather, I think that Bo Ryan is great coach who tends to make his players better. So it is hard for a raw freshman to beat out a Bo-seasoned junior or senior. Also, Ryan clearly does not tolerate defensive lapses. To a large degree, team defense in basketball is a mental game, and freshman are much more prone to mental lapses (just because they haven't had time to learn that part of the game, particularly because team defense is not taught well in high school or AAU ball).
There are two primary objections to the notion that Bo doesn't start freshman: Alando Tucker and Devin Harris. Obviously, these are two of the greatest Badgers ever, so if anything this just shows that Bo knows talent when he sees it. But it's also important to remember that those early Ryan teams had almost no upperclassman to choose from. Let's go to the history books.
When Alando started as a true freshman in 2002-03, the Badgers roster had just one senior (Kirk Penney) and ten freshmen and sophomores. With just one upperclassman in the frontcourt (junior Dave Mader) it was mathematically impossible for Bo not to start underclassmen that year. So Wilkinson (soph.) and Tucker (fr.) started almost every game.
The year before, when Harris started as a freshman, was similar. Bo's first team had just two seniors (Travon Davis and Charlie Wills) and one junior (Penney). Those three upperclassmen started every game. The other starts went to Mader (soph.) and Harris.
Once Bo got his program rolling and established balance in the classes, it became much more unusual to see freshmen and sophomores getting significant minutes, much less starting. Starting in 06-07, the Badgers have always returned at least four (usually five) upperclassmen penciled in as starters. In this era, Gasser is the only player to start and log heavy minutes as a freshman, when he played about 70% of available minutes, and this was mainly due to (1) Wilson's injury and failure to develop, and (2) total lack of depth at guard that year. (Krabby and Jordan Taylor are the only other players to log any significant minutes as freshmen: Krabby played 40% (no starts) in 05-06 and Taylor played 32% (no starts) in 08-09.)
So we can see that it takes something unusual for a freshman to get major minutes. It remains to be seen how unusual this season turns out to be.