Playing through the post is always the preferred method of operation for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
It’s just easier to execute that plan against some opponents than others.
Like Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center, where the Badgers closed the non-conference portion of their schedule by rolling to an 82-53 victory over overmatched UMass Lowell.
When junior center Ethan Happ wasn't dominating in the paint, he was drawing bodies that opened up space on the perimeter for his teammates. The result was a rare easy win for the Badgers (8-7) as they get set to jump back into Big Ten Conference play.
Happ finished with 18 points to share scoring honors with sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl, whose output was a career high. Redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford added 10 points for UW, which shot 56.1 percent and averaged 1.37 points per possession against the River Hawks (6-7).
UMass Lowell’s tallest starter was 6-foot-7, three inches shorter than Happ. So it was hardly surprising to see the Badgers dominate the River Hawks near the rim.
“I think that has something to do with it,” Happ said after the Badgers outscored the River Hawks 42-24 in the paint and 18-5 on second-chance points. “But I also think we were moving the ball, it wasn’t sticking to one side. It was just a lot crisper. That way, once the post players caught it, the defense wasn’t as loaded as usual.”
It helped that Pritzl and Ford were knocking down shots from outside. UW finished 8 of 15 from 3-point range, with Pritzl going 4 of 6 and Ford making two of his three attempts.
“Ethan probably wishes I shot a couple more of them to help him out,” said Pritzl, who topped the 17 points he scored earlier this season in games against South Carolina State and Western Kentucky. “We’re just trying to shoot it with confidence and take the good ones and not try to force anything. When we’re making shots, it makes his job way easier.”
It also made UMass Lowell’s chance at an upset nearly impossible. The River Hawks got 16 points from junior forward Josh Gantz and 14 from senior guard Matt Harris, but they were down 22 points by halftime and never threatened UW.
“We had no chance if they started knocking down shots,” UMass Lowell coach Pat Duquette said. “Once they shot the ball as well as they did from the 3-point line, I knew the game was going to slip away from us a little bit.”
The Badgers were much better defensively than they were three days earlier against Chicago State. UW allowed its lead to slip to single digits in the second half of that game, mainly because it allowed the Cougars to get far too many good looks in the paint.
UW coach Greg Gard thought his team’s communication and execution was much better against UMass Lowell, particularly when it came to defending in ball-screen situations. The Badgers held River Hawks star Jahad Thomas to nine points, 10 below his season average.
“I think if you talk to most coaches across the country, the thing they’re always striving to do is to find a level of consistency, attain it and then how can you retain it? How can you stay there? How can you keep inching forward and not take steps back?” Gard said. “We were better today because we were more consistent.”
The Badgers were also playing an overmatched and undersized opponent. That won’t be the case of the rest of the way, starting Tuesday when UW resumes Big Ten play with a game against visiting Indiana.
“We’re not where we want to be because there’s still a lot of room to improve,” Happ said after the Badgers stretched their winning streak to four games. “But I think we’re definitely excited for the task at hand that’s coming up.”