Wisconsin is unranked but dangerous, and certainly capable of handing the Wolverines their first regular season loss since Feb. 6.
The No. 1 reason is Ethan Happ, who, yes, is still playing college basketball. Happ redshirted his first season and has started every game since. Saturday’s contest will be his 123rd in a Wisconsin uniform.
The 6-foot-10 redshirt senior has met the expectations associated with being a preseason All-America. He is second among Big Ten players in scoring and rebounding and third in assists. KenPom.com has a formula to determine the site’s Player of the Year, and Happ is currently behind only Duke’s Zion Williamson.
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Happ still shoots almost exclusively in the paint, backing down defenders no matter where he initially catches the ball. His team-leading 4.6 assists per game show his vision for cutters and spot-up shooters. He is shooting 57 percent from the field but is having his worst season from the foul line (49 percent).
He scored 29 points in the lone matchup with Michigan last season, but needed 23 shots to do it. Michigan won that game in Madison, 83-72. Jon Teske, who’s had a breakout junior season for Michigan, played just nine minutes in that meeting and fouled Happ three times.
When it was recently mentioned to Michigan’s Zavier Simpson that Happ was one of the leaders in made hook shots, Simpson wasn’t surprised. “Ethan Happ, he’s got some nice, clever moves around the rim,” he said.
Happ has the footwork to slip past and under Teske and give him some trouble, similar to what Indiana’s Juwan Morgan and Northwestern’s Dererk Pardon have done this season.
How Michigan defends Happ will be interesting and important. The Wolverines have been hesitant to deploy double teams this season. Doing so Saturday would risk giving open looks to one of Wisconsin’s above-average 3-point shooters: D’Mitrik Trice (46 percent on 106 attempts) the best among them, but Brad Davison, Nate Reuvers, Kobe King, and Brevin Pritzl are capable.
After the Feb. 11 meeting last season, Michigan head coach John Beilein said the game plan was to stop Happ from scoring 40 points. “You can’t figure out how to guard him,” Beilein said. Michigan considered more double teams that day, he said, but scrapped that idea when its big lead made preventing 3s even more paramount.
More so than last season, Happ has help. This is clearly not the same Wisconsin team that ended a 20-year NCAA Tournament streak last season. For starters, they have their starters. Injuries hit Wisconsin’s backcourt hard last season.
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But with Greg Gard having a full roster at his disposal, Wisconsin started 8-1 and rose to No. 12 in the country. The defense is back to being a top-15 unit, and the Badgers flashed their potential with a 20-point win over Oklahoma in the Bahamas and a victory at Iowa. Those were in November, though, and they enter Saturday’s showdown having lost four of their last five, including two at home.
The Kohl Center is typically a more intimidating environment. Michigan’s win there last year was just its third in 16 tries.
Additionally, Wisconsin is 5-2 at home against AP top-5 teams. The Wolverines, undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country, enter with targets on their backs.
That wasn’t a problem earlier this season in Evanston or Champaign, but Wisconsin poses a bigger challenge. If Michigan has some foul trouble and Wisconsin’s 3s are falling, the Wolverines will have to exhibit the same focus and execution they did in those previous road tests.
Michigan is 17 for 17 this season. It might find claiming win No. 18 its toughest task yet.
This article is written by Andrew Kahn from MLive.com, Walker, Mich. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.