Armchair point guards from all corners of Badger Nation wondered why Ethan Happ remained in the game down the stretch Thursday night at the Kohl Center.
One factor in the latest crushing defeat for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team — a 59-52 setback against Minnesota — was Happ’s struggles at the free throw line. He missed six free throws over the final 8 minutes, 4 seconds of the game, including the front end in two bonus situations.
Golden Gophers coach Richard Pitino made the call to use the hack-a-Happ tactic, sending UW’s best player to a spot that has given him fits for most of his career, and it worked.
In hindsight — or even in real time as Happ’s free throw attempts were clanging off the rim — it was only natural some would criticize UW coach Greg Gard’s decision to keep the senior center in the game.
Gard, meanwhile, finds himself in a catch-22 with No. 22.
It’s one thing to bench Happ in the closing minute or two when the Badgers are trying to protect a lead. In those situations, when UW is attempting to milk the clock and the opponent has to foul, it makes sense to add an extra ball-handler who’s also a solid free throw shooter.
But when the Badgers are trying to mount a comeback, as was the case against the Gophers, they need Happ on the floor for his defense and rebounding. UW’s offense also tends to grind to a halt when Happ isn’t on the floor as a threat in the low post.
“He does so many things for us in that position when you’re trying to come from behind,” Gard said.
UW was down 49-43 when Happ converted a steal into a layup to cut its deficit to four. On Minnesota’s next possession, Happ blocked a 3-pointer by Amir Coffey to force a shot-clock violation.
Happ could have cut into Minnesota’s lead even more, but he missed two free throws on the ensuing possession. The Gophers intentionally fouled him again three possessions later and he missed three consecutive free throws, including a Minnesota lane violation on the middle try.
The best way for Happ to prevent opponents from using the same tactic in the future is to knock down free throws on a more consistent basis.
“It’s as simple as that,” he said.
Of course, it’s been anything but simple for Happ.
After going 13 of 18 in his previous three games, Happ missed six of his seven attempts against the Golden Gophers. He’s now shooting 47.5 percent from the line on the season, 51.9 percent since the start of the sophomore campaign and 55.5 percent for his career.
“It felt good in pregame,” said Happ, who made his first attempt of the game, completing a three-point play early in the second half. “The first one felt really good. And then after I missed the first two one-and-ones, there’s a little second-guessing in there.”
Happ watches clips of each of his made and missed free throws. His most common miss has been off the back of the rim.
Paralysis by analysis has been an issue over the years for Happ, he’s admitted. And while some fans question why Happ doesn’t work harder on his free throws in his free time, little do they know he’s constantly in the gym trying to correct the issue.
In fact, Happ said part of the problem earlier this season was he was shooting too much during his free time and constantly making tweaks between shots.
Happ has worked with multiple people during his career and spent about 30 minutes with UW assistant coach Dean Oliver after practice Friday. They worked on getting Happ to maintain his balance, finish on his toes and follow through the same way every shot.
“The hardest thing is when you get out there in a game, it’s not as comfortable as practice,” Oliver said. “What helps overcome nerves or excitement or whatever is just getting into a rhythm so that you’re not thinking and your muscles kind of do it without you even thinking about it. So we’re working on some rhythm things.
“He’s going to be fine. I’m not worried about it. I honestly hope teams foul him more, to tell you the truth.”
Penn State (7-7, 0-3 Big Ten) will be without coach Patrick Chambers when it hosts the No. 22 Badgers (10-4, 2-1) on Sunday in State College.
Chambers was suspended one game for shoving freshman guard Miles Dread in the chest during a timeout Thursday night at Michigan. The incident occurred in the first half of the Nittany Lions’ 68-55 loss to the Wolverines.
Associate head coach Keith Urgo will take Chambers’ place against UW.
The first technical of Brad Davison’s basketball career — and the only one until Thursday night — came during an AAU game when he yelled “and one” to an official after he thought he was fouled on a 3-point attempt.
Career technical No. 2 was almost as lame. Davison picked one up in the first half against Minnesota after slapping the floor in disgust following a drive to the rim.
Davison missed a shot and thought he was fouled on the play. His gesture afterward drew a technical from official Mike Eades.
“I didn’t know it was a technical for slapping the floor,” Gard said after the game. “But they described it after halftime as an unsporting gesture, similar to slapping the backboard. I don’t know, I’ll have to do some research on finding that one in the rulebook.”