Michigan coach talks about the keys to Saturday's 12 p.m. matchup against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — John Beilein has game planned for countless players throughout his coaching career.
If he had a list of faces he’s sick of seeing on film, though, Wisconsin big man Ethan Happ would certainly make the cut.
“It seems like we've been guarding Happ for 16 years, not five years, and he's a tough one,” Beilein said Friday. “We're going to have to play great defense on him.”
That’ll be priority No. 1 for the No. 2 Wolverines (17-0, 6-0 Big Ten) when they travel to Madison and put perfection on the line against the Badgers (11-6, 3-3) Saturday at the Kohl Center.
But Happ, as Beilein knows, is a different breed and hasn’t gotten any easier to prepare for over the years.
A preseason All-American and Wooden Award candidate, Happ is a rare 6-foot-10 product who can frustrate defenders with his array of post moves, find the open man out of the post and push the ball up the floor on a break.
So far this season, Happ has done all that and more for Wisconsin, leading the team in scoring (19.4 points), rebounding (10.4) and assists (4.6) by a healthy margin — all of which are career-high marks.
And to make matters worse, he has torched Michigan for 22 and 29 points in two of the past three meetings, with the latter occurring last season and marking Happ’s fifth-highest scoring output in 122 career games.
“I’ve never seen anything like him,” Beilein said. “Right now, one of the biggest dangers he does is he gets the rebound and then dribbles it up almost like into a LeBron type of post-up. You have to change, you have to work with some of your defensive transition rules. For example, X (Zavier Simpson) takes the ball a lot for us. Well, if he's taking the ball and Happ has it, then he's taking Happ to start it out.
“We try to figure out some things we can do, but I’ve never seen anybody like this with the skills. Just put him alone and a guy with footwork under the basket like this, it's rare. And now the guy can really pass. His shooting is the only thing that's the one thing that you hope he has a bad day shooting or has a bad day from the foul line. I'm going to be so glad when he's long gone.”
Beilein noted junior center Jon Teske has improved at defending without committing bad fouls and understanding how to use his 7-1 height to force missed shots, which will be pivotal against Happ.
But what sets Happ apart and makes him so difficult to simulate in practice is his deft footwork around the basket as well as his ability to maneuver in small areas and between gaps with the ball.
“It's really a challenge because once you even stop the dribble, he'll have three pivots that are all legal and you've got to guard all three,” Beilein said. “As soon as you sleep, he's going to score."
Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers hasn’t had the chance go up against Happ — it was the one game he missed last season with an ankle injury — but has witnessed the headaches he can cause.
Much like Beilein, Livers said he’s never faced a big man who can handle the ball, use shot fakes and finish at the rim quite like Happ.
"Over here we have high praise for him. We're watching his film and it's just like, 'Wow, this dude is really dribbling up the court,'” Livers said. “He's initiating offense. He'll even isolate, bring the ball up and we're just like, 'OK.' Once I kept watching more of his film I understand he has a bright career ahead because he can dribble the ball at 6-10 and guard bigger defenders. He's versatile, so I can't wait.”
To prepare for Happ’s handles, Livers said 6-10 forward and scout team member Jaron Faulds has been critical because he has the same type of “little baby crab dribble” and can imitate Happ’s ability to squeeze between defenders with the ball.
“I think that's part of the reason why we're doing so well because we basically play the team before we even play them and that just gives us a head start,” freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis said. “We know their plays, we know what they're looking for and all those actions really prepare us on the defensive end.
“Our biggest competition is ourselves, not the opponent, so as long as we're mentally prepared and we're ready to go. It's more important for us to play good and not focus on them as much.”
Still, containing Happ will command much of Michigan’s attention. A close second will be Wisconsin’s looks from 3-point range.
The Badgers rank No. 18 in the nation in 3-point shooting at 39.1 percent and have three guys who are connecting around a 40 percent clip: guards D’Mitrik Trice (45.6 percent) and Brad Davison (45.7 percent) and forward Nate Reuvers (38.6 percent).
Striking a defensive balance will be key as the Wolverines look to remain atop the Big Ten standings and pass their toughest road test yet in a place they have found little success.
"They're always tough. They've got a great plan, they don't beat themselves and they have an All-American center, by the way, who is absolutely terrific," Beilein said. "It's important that we can have some mix of trying to make every point that Happ makes difficult, tough twos, but also take away their 3-point game.
"We've got our work cut out for us."
Michigan at Wisconsin
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
Records: No. 2 Michigan 17-0, 6-0 Big Ten; Wisconsin 11-6, 3-3
Outlook: Wisconsin ranks second in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting (39.1 percent) and third in scoring defense (63.6 points)...Badgers big man Ethan Happ has scored in double figures in 41 consecutive games…Michigan has won three straight in the series but is 2-7 at the Kohl Center under coach John Beilein…The Wolverines have trailed for a total of 3 minutes, 7 seconds in six Big Ten games.
Teske vs. Happ
How Michigan’s Jon Teske matches up with Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ:
Points: Teske 8.4, Happ 19.4
Rebounds: Teske 6.6, Happ 10.4
Assists: Teske 1.0, Happ 4.6
Blocks: Teske 2.2, Happ 1.3
FG Pct.: Teske 50.9, Happ 57.1
FT Pct.: Teske 55.8, Happ 49.3
Minutes: Teske 27.0, Happ 32.1
Height: Teske 7-1, Happ 6-10
Weight: Teske 260, Happ 237