Ethan Happ grabbed the collar of his jersey, brought it to his face and clenched it with his teeth. His head slumped, his hands covered his neck as he shuffled to the end of the Wisconsin handshake line.
John Beilein approached Happ, and the two embraced as good sportspeople do. But while Happ’s frustration was obvious, for the Michigan men’s basketball coach, it was an embrace of relief.
“Ethan Happ said to me after the game, I hope to see you again this season. No, Ethan, I don’t want to see you again the rest of my life,” Beilein recalled after his team dispatched Happ’s Badgers, 61-52, on Saturday. “This guy was absolutely incredible.”
Beilein, by nature, never has anything but positive things to say about upcoming foes, no matter their caliber. But the praises he offered Wisconsin on Friday afternoon ran far deeper than the typical platitudes about playing hard and having experience.
“Wisconsin, right now, is playing as good as anybody in the country. They could beat anybody in the country. Quote me on that,” Beilein said. “ … The names are different, it’s the exact same (as the) teams that were winning championships over and over again.
“Look at their stats and our stats overall and we’re doing the same thing. They might foul a little bit more than us, but we don’t go to the foul line a lot. Everything’s almost virtually the same, the lines are. It’s called winning basketball. You don’t turn it over, you make your foul shots, you don’t foul people, you don’t give up threes. It’s winning basketball.”
Wisconsin basketball is as much an institution as the university itself. The championship-winning Badger teams of yesteryear slowed the game down to a crawl, played disciplined defense, ran efficient offense predicated on outside shooting and often revolved around a transcendent superstar.
This year’s outfit is no different. In the past, Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes and Josh Gasser orbited around Frank Kaminsky with Bo Ryan roaming the sideline. Now, it’s Happ in the middle of it all, scoring points and pinging passes to Brad Davison, Nate Reuvers and D’Mitrik Trice while Greg Gard looks on.
It was winning basketball then, and it still is now. Wisconsin handed Michigan its first loss on Jan. 19, in a game that was close all the way through, until the Badgers finally ground the Wolverines into a fine powder down the stretch. Michigan ran into an immovable object that day — a team with an identity that refused to change for any opponent, no matter if that opponent was 17-0.
“People don’t lose here because it’s the Kohl Center,” Beilein said then. “They lose here because of the style of play that Wisconsin plays. They don’t beat themselves, and they’re just tough to play. … We say, ‘We don’t want to play Wisconsin, cause they’re so good.”
Beilein was just 5-17 in his career against the Badgers entering Saturday. But his relief after the game didn’t just come from getting his sixth. It also seemed to come from doing so against the Wolverines’ mirror image.
Beilein’s compliments for Wisconsin on Friday match the team, program and identity he’s spent the last 12 years cultivating in Ann Arbor. What Michigan takes pride in — mistake-free offense and smart but hard-nosed defense — are the same things the Badgers value.
It makes sense, then, that Saturday’s rematch was so similar to the teams’ meeting in Madison. Baskets were difficult to come by. The pace was slow — almost torturously so at times. For most of the second half, the margin never crept above five points.
In short, it looked like a Michigan-Wisconsin basketball game.
“We hit big shots down the stretch and they didn’t last time, and it kind of flipped around,” Davison said. “They’re a very good team, very well-coached and play very well defensively. So it’s kind of just two juggernauts going at it.”
Except for the result, the Wolverines barely changed anything from the first meeting. Happ, who averages 18 points per game, almost demands to be double-teamed in the low post. But that’s just not what Michigan does. Junior center Jon Teske played Happ straight up, and after a hot start, going 7-for-10 with 14 points in the first half, he hit just two shots the rest of the way, saddled with foul trouble.
“They really just gave him one-on-one and let him go at Teske,” Davison said. “(Junior guard Zavier) Simpson’s obviously very good at raiding and digging and they would do that every once in a while, but they pretty much let him go one-on-one.”
Depending on who the Badgers had on the court, the Wolverines sent the occasional double. But for most of the game, they allowed Happ to get his, and if he did, so be it. They refused to allow Wisconsin’s shooters open looks out of the double-team. The Badgers hit just four 3-pointers.
Happ isn’t just his graceful footwork or silky touch on his hook shot, though — his dribbling and passing ability put him in his own league among big men. But by single-teaming Happ, Michigan took his playmaking out of the equation: he had one assist against five turnovers dealing with Teske’s size and Simpson’s pressure.
“If he catches it in the post, it’s very easy for him to score there,” Teske said. “You gotta push, deny him outside and just try to make him dribble and he’s gonna keep coming at you, keep coming at you, he’s gonna dribble, dribble, dribble. So you just gotta play him, wall him up. He’s gonna spin baseline, he’s gonna get his hooks, he’s gonna score a few.”
Michigan’s defense of Happ was just a microcosm of its plan to defeat Wisconsin. The Wolverines ensured the game would be played on their terms, the opposite of the first matchup. They made one of the most unique players in college basketball one-dimensional — at least as one-dimensional as possible.
And they caused Happ to stand in the Crisler Center tunnel, speaking to reporters and rueing opportunities he failed to take advantage of.
“It was kinda what I expected, which was Teske one-on-one, and then a lot of digging and helping,” Happ said. “Teske did a nice job chesting up, but again, I just felt like there was more that I left out on the table that I wish I could get back.”
But Happ’s body language after his final, meaningless heave smacked off the backboard was perhaps more telling.
It was a look of multifaceted frustration: from missed chances, yes, but from losing in such a fashion to a team so reminiscent of his — but on this day, simply better.
Shames can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.