Prior to an interview earlier this week, Brad Davison looked out at the Kohl Center floor and couldn’t help but notice a mess. No ice, no court, just the clutter of an uncompleted job during the dog days of summer.
In other words, a work in progress — much like a University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program that is in the early stages of the post-Ethan Happ era.
Happ left as one of the most productive and decorated players in program history and, naturally, the biggest question this offseason is how the Badgers will look without him.
The easy answer: much different.
UW went 23-11 and finished fourth in the Big Ten Conference standings last season, a bounce-back campaign that came on the heels on the program missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years.
The Badgers featured one of the best defenses in the country and lose two key pieces — Happ and fellow departing senior Khalil Iverson — from that unit. But that’s a story for another day, because UW coach Greg Gard prefers to go heavy on defense once practice resumes in the fall.
The theme of the eight-week summer session — the Badgers are at the halfway point — has been offense. There’s been focus on individual skill development and introducing concepts that fit a group that, in theory, won’t rely heavily on one player.
“It’s obviously a challenge when you lose someone as talented as Ethan is, and such a focal point,” Davison said. “We did a lot of things through him. Everything was inside-out, we were trying to feed the ball into him all the time. So it’s definitely going to be a challenge finding new ways to score without him.
“But with that being said, with every challenge comes a lot of opportunity. And we think there’s a lot of opportunity for a lot of other guys to step up and fill a bigger role. I think when you go and try to replace an Ethan, it’s not going to be with one person and that’s not what we want, either. We want it to be a concerted team effort and everybody stepping up their games in little ways to try to fill that void.”
Happ’s usage rate — 34.9 percent, according to KenPom — was the eighth-highest in the nation. The only power conference player with a higher usage rate than Happ’s was Marquette’s Markus Howard (36.3).
“That’s a lot of shots,” junior forward Nate Reuvers said, “that are going to get mixed around with this team.”
The official start of the season is still four months away, so Gard has a lot of time to decide on lineups. For now, he’s still playing around and likes what he has in terms of flexibility.
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Davison and D’Mitrik Trice, both juniors, return as the starting guards. An experienced backcourt also includes senior Brevin Pritzl and junior Trevor Anderson, who is recovering from a knee injury and is expecting to be full-go by the fall.
Sophomore Kobe King appears poised for an expanded role on the wing, while Reuvers, Aleem Ford and Micah Potter each offer a little something different in the frontcourt. UW still doesn’t know if it will have Potter, a transfer from Ohio State, available for the start of the season; the NCAA would have to grant Potter, who arrived at UW last December, a waiver because he’s only sat out one semester.
Redshirt freshman Joe Hedstrom and true freshman forward Tyler Wahl also are in the mix for playing time.
Gard sees the ability to go small or with a more traditional lineup. “I think that’s the nice thing about having so much versatility is that there can be a lot of different combinations on the floor,” Gard said.
What Davison and others have noticed the past few weeks is the potential to spread the floor with five shooters. That’s something that couldn’t be done with Happ and Iverson, who combined to attempt only 11 shots from 3-point range last season, in the lineup.
“Ethan is a great player,” Pritzl said, “but the problem is you just didn’t have to guard him outside 15 feet so it bogs down what we were able to do.”
Ideally, UW will get back to running more Swing offense and continue to incorporate another motion-based scheme, the Flow, into the mix. Instead of four players standing around and watching one player create a shot for himself or kick the ball out to the perimeter, there will be more cutting and movement.
Of course, it still all comes down to the ball going through the hoop. It wasn’t Happ’s fault that some of UW’s perimeter shooters went ice cold down the stretch last season, which ended with a loss to Oregon in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
Trice went 10 of 43 from 3-point range over the final seven games of the season. Davison was 13 of 61 over the final 12 games. King was 2 of 18 during that same stretch.
The consensus from the way-too-early prognosticators is that the Badgers will take a step — or more — back after losing Happ. Davison and Co. would like to prove otherwise.
“In our locker room, we know how good we can be and we block out everything outside,” Davison said. “We know how much talent and how much capability we have in our own locker room. Losing Ethan and losing Khalil and losing Chuck (Thomas) is definitely a big challenge, but we also have a lot of guys who are hungry and are looking forward to the opportunity of filling their roles and also expanding their roles and showing more of what they can do.”