Michigan has faced its fair share of talented big men this season.
There’s been freshmen sensations and projected top-10 NBA draft picks Jaren Jackson Jr. (Michigan State) and Mohamed Bamba (Texas), and seniors Thomas Welsh (UCLA) and Isaac Haas (Purdue).
The Wolverines will add another one to the list Sunday at the Kohl Center with Wisconsin’s do-it-all star Ethan Happ, who along with Jackson, Bamba, Welsh and Haas make up half the 10 candidates for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award.
Happ, a 6-foot-10, 235-pound redshirt junior, leads the Badgers in nearly every statistical category through 26 games, including scoring (17.8 points), rebounding (8.3), assists (four), steals (1.4) and blocks (one).
In fact, Happ’s season totals in points scored (462), rebounds (217), assists (104), steals (36) and blocks (25) tops Michigan’s leading player in each statistical category by a wide margin.
“I don't think I've ever seen anybody like him in my life,” Michigan coach John Beilein said on a teleconference call with reporters Saturday. “There's not a guy anywhere that has that package where he's at 100 assists. He's got as many assists as Zavier Simpson. He has incredible vision and with his back to the basket, he's got eyes in the back of his head and he sees everything that's coming.
“All these years I don't think I've seen anything like this. He's such a bright, smart player who plays the game the right way. At that size and given that type of freedom, he might get a rebound and dribble all the way down into a post-up. You've maybe seen LeBron (James) or somebody like that do that, but not many Big Ten guys do it.”
Happ will provide the latest challenge for junior center Moritz Wagner and Michigan’s post defense, which has taken its lumps against Welsh (22 points, 10 rebounds), Haas (41 points, 12 rebounds in two games) and Jackson (19 points, 10-for-13 on free throws).
But unlike last season when Happ was just a cog in Wisconsin’s finely tuned operation, he’s now the focal point and centerpiece of a team that hasn’t experienced the same level of success it has grown accustomed to.
“I think that because there was so many parts around him last year that he is the guy right now,” Beilein said. “(Bronson) Koenig was so good last year and they had all those veterans. He's showing everybody how Wisconsin plays the game. It's a great concept.
“I assume he has more assists than he had last year with less shooters around him than he had last year. He's still really solid with his back to the basket, but I think when everybody started double-teaming him last year that bothered him a little bit. It's not bothering him right now.”
Slowing down Happ should be Michigan’s top priority, but that’s easier said than done considering he ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring, is tied for 12th in field-goal percentage (54 percent) in the conference and has been held under 10 points just twice this season.
Add in the fact the game is being played at the Kohl Center, a place where Michigan has won once since 2000, and the degree of difficulty is ratcheted up.
“They’ve never finished below the top four (in the Big Ten) in my 11 years here. You're always going in and playing a team that's really good,” Beilein said. “We've played them very tough on several occasions and even last year we lost by four there.
“Even in the first years we played them tough, but they were always better than us in the last few minutes. It’s a tough place to play and we've had some good wins in some other places. This is one we only have one since I've been here. It's a difficult place to win.”
Beilein said freshman forward Isaiah Livers has been able to practice in a limited capacity and is questionable to play Sunday at Wisconsin.
Livers suffered an ankle sprain within the first two minutes of Tuesday’s loss at Northwestern and didn’t return.
“He was able to do some things the last couple days,” Beilein said. “He’ll be day to day. We'll see how he feels (Sunday), but he was able to do some things in practice.”
If Livers is unable to suit up, fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson will likely replace him in the starting lineup.
MICHIGAN AT WISCONSIN
Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
TV/radio: CBS/950 AM
Records: No. 20 Michigan 19-7, 8-5 Big Ten; Wisconsin 11-15, 4-9
Outlook: Michigan has lost 13 of the past 14 meetings at Wisconsin since 2000. A win would give coach John Beilein his eighth 20-win season in 11 years with the Wolverines…The Badgers have lost eight of 10 but are 9-5 at home this season.