On Saturday, the Michigan men’s basketball team (17-0 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) will face one of its biggest challenges in Big Ten play when it takes on Wisconsin (11-6, 3-3) at the Kohl Center in Madison.
The Badgers were among the conference’s most impressive teams early in the season, notching non-conference wins over Oklahoma and North Carolina State, and opening Big Ten play with a win at Iowa. They have encountered a rough stretch since then, dropping their final game of 2018 to Western Kentucky before losing three of four to start the new year — including home losses to Minnesota and Purdue. They also fell just short in a comeback attempt at No. 19 Maryland on Monday.
Still, though, it’s a marked improvement from last season for Wisconsin, who went 15-18 in 2017-18 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years. If the Badgers return to postseason play this season, it will be on the back of fifth-year senior forward Ethan Happ, a two-time All-Big Ten selection. The Daily sat down with Happ at Big Ten Media Day in October.
The Michigan Daily: Is there a different attitude in the team this year coming off the down year than there was last year or the year before that?
Ethan Happ: Yeah, we know how far away we were. It’s not like we were right there at the NCAA tournament mark, we were far away, and we know how much we have to improve. And last year, it’s not like we expected to be good, but we almost took for granted the little things that made Wisconsin so good every year, year in and year out. So, I think this year, we’re not taking anything for granted and we’re just gonna grind in practice and try to make the season the best one that we’ve had in a while.
TMD: So how do you close that bigger gap between where you were last year compared to the years before that?
Happ: Defensively is the biggest thing. You could tell, for the last five years or whatever, we were a great defensive team, except for last year. Even within the season, the whole first half of the season, we weren’t good. Then, we got a little bit better, and then when we started actually winning games toward the end of the year, that’s when we really locked in and became a pretty good defensive team. So that’s just a major — it goes hand in hand with us being in the win column more often.
TMD: How has the program changed since the first half of your freshman year when Bo Ryan was here?
Happ: The program itself hasn’t changed. We still have the same principles, the same selfless attitude that you need in any Wisconsin program. But there are differences from coach to coach. But I think the main thing is with the players, that we just want to preserve the culture that’s been at Wisconsin. To answer your question, I don’t think there has been a lot of change. We just need to get back to where we have been.
TMD: What led you to eventually take your name out of the NBA draft last year?
Happ: A couple of things. One, the feedback I got from teams, they thought I’d benefit from another year. But also, just the way we ended last season, I didn’t want that to be my last season at Wisconsin. So hopefully we end this on a lot better note and go out the right way.
TMD: What feedback did they give you?
Happ: The most unanimous things were free throw percentage has to improve and then, being able to space the floor with, like, a 15-foot jump shot. Those are big things for teams to move me higher up on their boards. They said I was an elite ball handler for my side, finisher, passer. They just need to see that to move up higher on their boards.
TMD: Have you used that feedback to help you mentor the younger guys on the team on what NBA teams are looking for?
Happ: Not especially on what NBA teams are looking for. I’m just more putting the NBA in the background right now, just trying to focus on how Wisconsin can be the best team. Luckily, there are things that can be mutually beneficial for myself making it to the next level, but also for Wisconsin.