2016-17 Season Preview: Wisconsin Badgers

In writing the preview for Wisconsin, I couldn't help but think about Darrelle Revis. Yes, that Darrelle Revis. Let me explain.

In 2009, the New York Jets welcomed first-time head coach Rex Ryan. Ryan had been an accomplished defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens, but he was nonetheless taking over a team that had struggled defensively under prior coach Eric Mangini, particularly in the passing game. Ryan, son of former defensive guru Buddy Ryan, certainly had a background that suggested he could turn it around.

And turn it around he did. In 2009, the New York Jets boasted the best defense in the NFL by DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, explained here). And the team remained pretty good...until 2013. The defense completely collapsed in 2014, and Ryan lost his job. He was picked up by Buffalo for the following season—and it's worth mentioning that Buffalo's defense was also very good in 2014, the year before Ryan arrived. However, it got worse once he came over, and it still isn't very good (currently ranked 17th in the league).

In case the setup wasn't obvious, Darrelle Revis stopped playing for Rex Ryan after the 2012 season, Ryan's last year fielding a quality defense. He did play without Ryan, for the Jets, starting as a rookie in 2007. But the Jets defense nonetheless wasn't good. So, was it Ryan, or Revis? Really, the answer is "both" (but mostly Revis).

For those that don't know, starting in 2009, there was a place called Revis Island. In the NFL, receivers and quarterbacks are, for the most part, too good to consistently defend with man coverage. The quarterback and the wide receiver have the benefit of knowing where the receiver should be when the ball is thrown. Also, Reggie Wayne is fast and runs great routes, and had the sport's greatest quarterback of all time throwing to him back in 2009. But when the Colts hosted the Jets in the regular season in 2009, Wayne ended up with 3 catches (on 7 targets) for a measly 33 yards and no touchdowns. And this pattern repeated itself all season against the elites of NFL wide receivers:

  • Andre Johnson: 4/7 targets, 35 yards.
  • Randy Moss (Tom Brady!): 4/7, 24 yards, then 5/11, 34 yards (1 touchdown)
  • Marques Colston (Drew Brees): 2/6, 33 yards
  • Steve Smith: 1/6, 5 yards
  • Roddy White: 4/10, 33 yards

That season, the Jets lost in the AFC Championship game to the Colts, a team they had beaten a month earlier. The difference? This time, the Colts had second-year receiver Pierre Garcon available, who hauled in 11 of 15 targets for over 150 yards. Revis still shut down Wayne, but he couldn't cover everyone.

Of course, the Jets defense wasn't simply good because Revis could shut the #1 receiver down. It was good because, with Revis solving That Problem, the other 10 guys on the field could focus on everything else. That meant an extra man to cover the other receivers in the pattern, or a linebacker or safety could blitz without worrying about giving up a big play. Having a player that was extremely good at defending passes in man coverage meant the Jets could be over-aggressive everywhere else, and get away with it. Ryan's blitz-happy packages don't work if the coverage stinks, after all. And that's what we've seen in Buffalo.

Now, the question you're asking yourself is what does any of this NFL rambling have to do with Wisconsin Badger basketball. The answer is Ethan Happ. As a redshirt freshman last year, Happ displayed a remarkable, not often seen, talent. He's a center that gets steals. He led the Big Ten in steal percentage, which is an understatement—he actually has no peer in the tempo-free era. And again, he's doing this as a center. That's not a defender that gets many opportunities to guard frequent ballhandlers. He's still rebounding (4th in Big Ten in defensive rebound percentage) and blocking at least enough shots so as not to be negligent (20th). It's why he was the BTG Defensive Player of the Year. And again, he was a freshman.

Wisconsin returns basically everyone, losing only walkon Jordan Smith. The team shot nearly 40% on 3s in Big Ten play last season, and really only struggled scoring inside the 3-point line. I suspect Nigel Hayes' 42% percentage in that category will tick upward. The offense should be good. And really, Wisconsin isn't a very interesting team to preview on offense, frankly. That's not because the offense isn't fun to watch (it is!) or that it isn't productive (it is!), it's because the structure and the core principles have been the same for about 15 years now. Greg Gard showed no indication that he wants to change any of that (if it ain't broke...). If you want a quick primer, this is what a Wisconsin set looks like (notice the triangle one side, kickout options in the corner and opposite elbow. Almost every Wisconsin possession will start like this.)

If the post isn't open, the ball swings to the other side, where they try it there ("swing offense"). There's ball screen action that gets them into the set, there are shuffle cuts along the baseline that initiate the post-up action, and there are dribble-drive variations that can be exploited depending upon the skillset of the player. I don't deny any of that exists, I'm saying the point of all this is to get the ball into the paint to either score there, or to kick out to one of the four three-point spots for an open look.

But defensively, this year can be interesting for Wisconsin, in large part because of Happ. Coaches have adopted specific strategies based on the unique abilities of players before. To take a somewhat recent example, Purdue's defenses were excellent with JaJuan Johnson in large part because, with his shotblocking ability, Purdue's perimeter defenders were free to face-guard opponents. They knew that if they were easily beat off the dribble, Johnson would be waiting to swat away any shot in the paint. With Happ around, post feeds to Isaac Haas and Thomas Bryant are more risky than they otherwise would be. Wisconsin guards can cheat into other passing lanes, knowing that Happ's defense serves as a deterrent.There are a number of things Gard can potentially do to take advantage of Happ's unique skillset—it remains to be seen if it will be as effective as Revis Island once was.