Big Ten Preview Part V: Key Questions For Wisconsin & Michigan

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 6th, 2017

With the season just a few days away, Rush the Court’s Big Ten preview will tip off its coverage by posing season-defining key questions for each team. Today we address Wisconsin and Michigan.

#6 Wisconsin – Just how much can Ethan Happ do?

In 2017-18, the Badgers will go as far as Ethan Happ takes them. (Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire)

Ethan Happ was Wisconsin’s best player last season and there’s not much argument otherwise. Despite playing just 27.8 minutes per game — fourth-most among the Badgers’ starters — the forward led his team in rebounding, assists, steals and blocks, all while scoring at a coolly efficient clip (58.6% FG). According to KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, in fact, Happ was the eighth-best player in the entire country a season ago. But he also had help in the form of four seniors — Bronson Koenig (14.5 PPG), Nigel Hayes (14.0 PPG), Zak Showalter (8.3 PPG), and Vitto Brown (6.8 PPG) — whose years of experience in the Wisconsin system helped the big man flourish. With that group no longer around, Happ must carry an even bigger load this season. And he might well have the tools to do it. An excellent passer out of the post, Happ used 28.4 percent of Wisconsin’s possessions while he was on the floor (ranking in the top 100 nationally) while posting a 23.3 percent assist rate, among the highest in college basketball by players standing 6’10” or taller. Which is to say, Wisconsin often ran its offense through Happ, and — whether by scoring or passing — he generally made good things happen. With sophomore D’Mitrik Trice taking over the Badgers’ point guard duties and not much backcourt depth to speak of, Happ’s ability to distribute good looks from the blocks will be more than just an added benefit this season; it will be crucial to the team’s success. What’s more, the crafty post scorer reportedly worked on adding a mid- and long-range jumper to his offensive skill set over the summer. For a highly efficient scorer who also dominates the glass on both ends, led the Big Ten in steal rate, and ranked among the top 10 nationally in block rate… that’s a scary notion. Wisconsin has not finished below fourth place in the Big Ten since 2001. If Happ can be Mr. Everything and his young supporting cast — including a talented group of incoming freshmen — can provide consistent offensive support, this preseason projection of sixth place will look quite foolish.

#5 Michigan – Who runs the show, and how well do they run it?

Can Michigan’s next point guard keep the offense rolling? (Isaiah Hole, 247Sports)

Michigan boasted the fourth-most efficient offense in college basketball last season, thanks in no small part to Derrick Walton Jr. — the point guard ranked among the top six Big Ten players in offensive rating, true shooting percentage, assist rate and free throw rate, while shooting a robust 42 percent from behind the arc. He also averaged 19 points and eight assists per game during the month of March and nearly carried the Wolverines all the way to the Elite Eight. After starting all four years in Ann Arbor, Walton had more or less mastered John Beilein’s complex offense by the end of his career. Without him, Beilein’s attack should still be good — Michigan has ranked among the top 40 nationally in offensive efficiency for six of the past seven years — but just how good depends on how quickly the next man up (or men) gets to speed. With the season just days away, graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons, sophomore Zavier Simpson and freshman Eli Brooks are still battling for the starting role, with Simmons looking like the strongest candidate. The Ohio transplant led the Mid-American Conference in assists each of the past two seasons while providing some scoring punch to boot (15.9 PPG). Whichever point guard takes over, he will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. Ultra-skilled forward Moritz Wagner, who was selected to the preseason All-Big Ten Team after a breakout season, will be joined in the frontcourt by talented Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews and sharpshooter Duncan Robinson (42% 3FG). Shooting guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (9.1 PPG) is also back in Ann Arbor. Whether Beilein can find a point guard, Simmons or otherwise, who understands his offensive sets well enough to maximize that surrounding talent will be key to Michigan’s season. Especially since the defense may regress following the departures of rangy forward D.J. Wilson (5.2% block rate) and assistant coach Billy Donlon, a defensive specialist who left for Northwestern.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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