Last year was a big bounce back season for the Badgers. After failing to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly 20 years, Greg Gard led his team to 23 wins and a 5-seed. Although the team was not, on the whole, experienced, it did include do-everything (well, except shoot outside of 5 feet) center Ethan Happ.
Happ was the last player from the Bo Ryan regime, and I can't think of a better player that epitomizes Ryan's approach. It's probably true that most people think of Bo Ryan basketball as a plodding, 1957 approach to the game played by guys named Brian and Greg. If you look closer, you'll notice things like obsessions with taking care of the basketball, defensive rebounding, and chasing 3-point shooters off the three point line.
All of that is true, but in my view what made Ryan special was his ability to understand a player's strengths and weaknesses, and work with that. When his team didn't have enough offensive talent to score a point per game, he played defensive specialists that kept the opponent at 0.9 PPP. When he had 5 guys capable of hitting 3s and manning every position, he spread the floor more, and went back to the pick and pop action that had been discarded the year before. Jordan Taylor always had the ball in his hands because the opponent could never get at it there. Teams that needed more structure played within rules. His most talented teams mostly made it up as they went along. Flexibility, it's underrated and scarce among coaches.
Ethan Happ is a weird player. He has a lot of guard skills because he grew up as a guard. He's not the first big man to do that, of course, but usually that story is unearthed because there's a frontcourt player who can shoot a little. Ethan Happ cannot shoot. He attempted just 16 three-pointers in his college career, and he made 1. Conversely, he made 55 percent of the 1,602 two-pointers he attempted. His free throw shooting started at 64 percent as a freshman, and got worse from there, finishing at 47 percent last year.
But his ballhandling was a marvel. Teams would focus on him and not let him get deep position on a post catch, but it didn't really matter because he would dribble his way in. I mean, how many centers can do this?
His confidence with his handle allowed him to make quick, aggressive moves in the post, and he was tremendously difficult to contain.
I'm sure a lot of coaches see a player like Ethan Happ, who was somewhere between 6-7 and 6-8 when he was being recruited, and figured that he was an undersized center who needed 3 inches and 45 pounds, and even then you were getting a below-average athlete for the position.
Bo Ryan saw something he could work with. Happ got the freedom to take as many dribbles as he wanted. He sucked defenses in and made tremenedous passes out of the post, leading his team in assist rate every year of his career.
All of this is before getting into his defense. Unlike typical centers, he wasn't much of a shotblocker. But he had a knack for getting steals, and like all Wisconsin big men he was a great rebounder. He'll be missed.
Happ's departure also means we have the first Ryan-free roster. I'm sure Ryan at least recruited some of these players, but he didn't coach any of them. It's like Apple, after the release of the iPhone 5 (the last product Steve Jobs worked on). And like Tim Cook, I'm sure Gard will be around for a while. He's won 61 percent of his Big Ten games over 4 years, and has gone to the NCAA Tournament in 3 of those seasons, with two Sweet 16 appearances. Even in Ryan's tall shadow, that's good enough.
But life without Happ will not be easy. He consumed over 30 percent of the team's possessions, and was rarely off the floor last year. No one person can replace Happ, of course, but junior Nate Reuvers figures to take most of it. Reuvers' game is less Ethan Happ, and more Frank Kaminsky, with a touch of Greg Stiemsma on defense. Like Kaminsky, Reuvers can make outside shots (38 percent on 3s last season), but has not been able to bully his way to buckets in the paint. Kaminsky eventually put on enough weight to hold his own, we'll see if Reuvers can figure out how to make a higher percentage of his 2s. His rebounding has also been well below Wisconsin standards the past two seasons, and the Badgers were not such an excellent rebounding team last year that he could reasonably claim there were too few rebounds to grab after his teammates took their share. Some of that may be explained by his penchant for shotblocking (thus the Stiemsma comparison) getting him out of position. But I think there's also a strength issue at play as well. Reuvers needs to really sit down to hold position against bigger opponents, which limits his ability to "go up and get it."
Another question Reuvers needs to answer is whether he can get such good looks this year without Happ drawing attention. Some of those double (and triple) teams last year were pretty gratuitous.
Brad Davison and D'Mitrik Trice figure to be the other leads of the offense. Trice will assume point guard duties, and I think he's a bit craftier than he gets credit for. Here, he does an excellent job of setting up his defender for a pick and pop.
Speaking of the pick and pop, I expect that to be a bigger part of Wisconsin's offense this year. The team is playing Aleem Ford at the 4-spot, and his offense is very three-point heavy. With Reuvers at the 5, the design—if not the quality—of this team is similar to those Kaminsky Final Four teams. There's really not a single player on the floor that a defense can abandon on the perimeter.
That's probably going to result in an empty paint quite often, which is good news for this group that struggles in making 2s. Kobe King is the only returning rotation player that shot more 2s than 3s last year, and made over 50 percent of his 2s (Reuvers made 49 percent, Davison 42 percent, Trice 38 percent).
It's hard not to look at this roster and see an overwhelming number of juniors. Next season will almost surely go better than this one. But if Wisconsin is ever going to reach the highs of the Ryan Era, it has to also reach the mediums in medium seasons. That means making the Tournament, at minimum, this year. The computers think that might be a dicey proposition, though I'm a little more optimistic. It's just too hard to bet against the 3-ball.