Ethan Happ could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The regular season was winding down a few weeks ago, and the senior center for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team was counting down the days. It wasn’t that Happ was longing for his career to be over; he was just eager to get as far away from Big Ten Conference opponents as possible.
“It’ll be easier to get some of the little things that I do around the hoop,” Happ said at the time. “But as a team (as well), definitely, because the Big Ten is so tough defensively and the coaching staffs are so good that by this time of year it’s so hard to score in the half court.”
Maybe there’s merit in that belief, or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking. Happ and the Badgers (23-10) will find out Friday afternoon when they open NCAA tournament play with a game against Oregon (23-12) at the SAP Center in San Jose, California.
Facts are facts, and what can’t be denied is that UW’s offense took a nosedive during the grind of Big Ten play. From the time conference play got going again on Jan. 3 to the end of their stay in the Big Ten tournament, a span of 2½ months that included 20 games, the Badgers fell from No. 18 to No. 52 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings.
That run included 12 games against seven teams ranked among the top 30 defenses by KenPom. It’s no wonder Happ feels like he has to go deep into his bag of tricks to get to the rim because his first, second, third and fourth options sometimes have been taken away by opponents who know him so well.
“Everyone knows everyone’s tendencies, our offenses, our defenses and all that stuff,” UW assistant coach Howard Moore said. “There’s a lot of truth to that, where just the familiarity of what people bring to the table is gone now. The biggest thing is you’ve still got to execute. You’ve got to be sharper and you’ve got to understand everyone’s good at this stage. But I’ll take that without the familiarity.”
The good news for the Badgers is the only other Big Ten teams in the South region are Purdue and Iowa. UW wouldn’t see either of them until the Elite Eight.
The bad news is there could be some pretty good defenses standing in UW’s path in the first three rounds. Kansas State, No. 4 in KenPom, is a potential second-round opponent. Virginia (No. 5) could be waiting in the Sweet 16.
But first, the Badgers have to get past an Oregon defense that is No. 18 nationally and has been extremely difficult to score against during its eight-game winning streak. The Ducks have yielded an average of 54.3 points during that run, with opponents shooting 35 percent overall and 23 percent from 3-point range while committing an average of 15.1 turnovers per game.
A cynic could say that Oregon’s surge has been aided by going against offenses that, at least statistically, are rather pedestrian. Among the group of five teams that the Ducks beat during their run — Washington, Washington State and Arizona State were two-time victims — only Utah (No. 22) is ranked among the top 65 offenses by KenPom in terms of efficiency.
Still, Dana Altman’s team will present a unique challenge because it mostly uses a 2-3 matchup zone that features several long bodies. Oregon, which also applies pressure in the backcourt, starts four players who are listed at 6-foot-9 and have a 6-10 reserve.
When asked earlier this week if getting away from Big Ten rivals could help his struggling offense, UW coach Greg Gard said it may. Or it may not.
“It won’t be easier, it’ll just be different,” Gard said. “Is that good, bad, indifferent? It probably depends on the result we get Friday. If we’re able to take care of business, yeah, it was good.”
The bottom line for the Badgers, regardless of whether their opponent is a familiar one or not, is they need to start making shots. They were inefficient in the paint for much of Big Ten play and have shot 29 percent from 3-point range over their past 11 games.
Both of those issues were at the forefront of UW’s 67-55 loss to Michigan State in a Big Ten tournament semifinal on Saturday in Chicago. The Badgers went 20 of 39 in the paint — including 16 of 27 at the rim — and missed 17 of their 19 attempts from 3-point range.
UW players and coaches were pleased with the amount of quality looks they got against the Spartans, which made the result even more frustrating.
“I’d take those shots every night, especially against Michigan State,” UW assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft said. “You usually don’t get that many good looks against that type of team. I thought we moved the ball really well. We played with good pace, we were screening, we were cutting well and shots just didn’t drop. I would like to get those shots the next couple games we’ve got here.”