MADISON, Wis. — Turning a losing Big Ten basketball program into a winning one isn't a challenge Wisconsin Coach Steve Yoder takes lightly.
Neither is it a goal that can be achieved quickly, Yoder said. He's making no apologies for the Badgers' 10th, 10th and ninth-place conference finishes in the three years he has been at Wisconsin.
Instead, the soft-spoken Yoder is looking foward to a 1985-86 season that will either prove his contention that the Badgers are steadily improving or confirm the low expectations of many Wisconsin basketball fans.
"What most people don't understand is that this is the Big Ten," Yoder said. "Teams in this league don't make jumps from last place to first place or ninth place to second place or eighth place to third place.
"This is a league where you gradually get better and hope you can move ahead of somebody else," he said. "And everybody else is trying to get better at the same time, so we're just trying to mind our own business and get better."
Wisconsin did get better last year, posting a 14-14 overall record compared to 8-20 records in each of the previous two years. It was the Badgers' best finish in five years.
The Badgers were 5-13 in conference play and moved out of the Big Ten's basement for the first time in four years. They were one game away from eigth-place finisher Minnesota and two away from seventh-place Indiana.
Some basketball prognosticators have picked the Badgers to move up another notch in the Big Ten this season, but Yoder said he doesn't pay attention to preseason predictions.
"I don't know where they get their information," he said. "There's only one spot we're interested in being in (first) and I don't really care much about the other spots. We just want to go out and win some games and be as be as competitive as we can be."
Yoder said he's counting on the experience of his three returning starters to help Wisconsin to a winning season.
Senior guard Rick Olson, who averaged 16.7 points per game last season, is back, along with 6-7 junior forward J.J. Weber.
Junior guard Mike Heineman, who averaged 7.2 points per game while starting last season, has been bothered by a back injury, but Yoder said he expects Heineman to at least be ready for the Jan. 4 Big Ten opener against Northwestern in Madison.
Wisconsin's first game is Nov. 22 at South Carolina.
The two other starting spots are open, vacated by the graduations of center John Ploss and forward Scott Roth, the team's leading scorer last season.
Yoder said 6-8 senior Jay Laszewski and 6-9 freshman Darin Schubring will battle for the center position, while 6-8 senior Gregg Steinhaus and 6-7 junior Rod Ripley are in the running for the other forward spot.
Olson, who is quick at 6-1, 165 pounds, said he expects the Badgers to match or better their 1984-85 record.
"We need a forward who can score consistently and a big man to take Ploss' role," he said. "If we can find that, we'll be very successful this year. I think we can finish around .500 or better."
Weber, who gained 25 pounds while weightlifting during the summer, said the upcoming season will show that the Badgers really are improving.
"I think a lot of people are going to be surprised," he said. "We have a lot of guys who are more dedicated this year than in the past."