This article originally appeared in the Nov. 7, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here. Read scouting reports on every team in the top 20 here, and find the rest of our college basketball preview package here.
Ethan Happ’s redshirt freshman season at Wisconsin, in 2014–15, was a punishing apprenticeship. He was 6' 9″, a few growth spurts removed from being a high school point guard, and his assignment on most days was to defend 7‑foot senior Frank Kaminsky, that season’s Wooden Award winner. “Frank did not take it easy on Ethan,” says coach Greg Gard, an assistant at the time—nor did Ethan take it easy on Frank, who was often annoyed by the freshman’s aggression. “For me, scout team was my game,” says Happ. “I played like I was in front of 40,000 people.”
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When Happ did get in front of the public, as a starter in 2015–16, he emerged as a remarkably high-impact defender. He led the Big Ten in steal percentage (4.0)—a rare accomplishment for someone who guards post players—and was fourth in defensive-rebounding percentage (23.8) as Wisconsin finished 13th nationally in defensive efficiency. Now 6' 10″, Happ is a big reason why SI projects the Badgers as the -nation’s top defense despite their lack of a true rim protector or perimeter lockdown artist.
Wisconsin should also benefit from continuity: Returning players accounted for 99% of the minutes on last season’s Sweet 16 team. Gard took over after Bo Ryan resigned in December, and the Badgers clicked by reverting to a swing offense and by executing their team-defense tenets of limiting fast breaks, three-point tries and driving lanes. “They started to grasp the whole picture instead of just worrying about their man,” Gard says. “Everybody talks about offensive synergy, but defensive synergy is just as important.”
If Nigel Hayes rediscovers the three-point shot that deserted him between his sophomore season (39.6%) and his junior year (29.3%), he should earn All-America honors and reach his third Final Four.
Coach’s Take: Greg Gard
“The types of shots Nigel Hayes got last season, when he moved to small forward, completely changed from what he got as a power forward the previous two years. The thing that will help him is that there's more experience around him now.
“His teammates will be better at finding him in the right spots, and I think he'll be better at finding guys that are more advanced in terms of their instincts. . . . The better and more efficient we were offensively last season, the better our defense got because we took care of the ball more. Our turnover numbers went down. Our free throw rate went up in attempts per game. Our field goal percentage went up. Our field goal percentage defense went down, so some of it was correlated. Our improvement offensively helped our defense because we weren't giving up as many live ball turnovers. We were taking better shots. We were getting to the free throw line more. All those things help your transition defense. The more we can set our defense and have opponents have to play five versus five, obviously, it's anybody's strength is in numbers. We were able to do that a little bit more effectively, and a little bit more consistently, and that helped overall for us defensively.”