As the only returning starter for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, center Ethan Happ will be expected to shoulder the scoring load this season.
But what will happen when Happ isn’t scoring?
That might be the biggest question facing the new-look Badgers this season. Happ, a returning third-team All-American, will need scoring help and none of the other returnees averaged more than 5.6 points per game last season. Four others who are expected to contribute didn’t even play college basketball in 2016-17.
With or without Happ putting up points, the Badgers are going to have to find new ways to score this season. Lots of ways. And after a rare season-opening exhibition game in which the opponent actually had some game, that is starting to look like a possibility.
UW showed excellent scoring balance, when Happ had a quiet first half, with firepower from all corners of the court in both halves of a 69-38 win over Northern Iowa Wednesday night at the Kohl Center, a victory so impressive that it’s a shame it won’t count.
UW coach Greg Gard has said repeatedly the Badgers’ scoring could come from just about anywhere on any given night. That’s what happened during the team’s five-game trip to New Zealand and Australia in August, when five players led the team in scoring, none of them named Happ.
Wednesday, UW carried that over into a rare exhibition game against a quality Division 1 opponent, games the NCAA allowed teams to play this year if the proceeds went toward disaster relief in various parts of the country.
After starting slowly, UW made Northern Iowa look bad on both ends of the court, but the Panthers are no pushover. They’ve reached the NCAA tournament in seven of the past 14 seasons and are picked for second in the respected Missouri Valley Conference this season.
Except for Northern Iowa’s 10-2 start, UW played sound defense and showed it has the makings of a versatile and potentially explosive offense. By the time the game was over, 11 Badgers scored and eight hit 3-point shots. Freshman guard Kobe King provided 15 points and tons of energy. Happ and forward Khalil Iverson had nine points each.
It’s only one game, but those who were wondering where UW’s firepower would come from with the graduation of Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter got their answer. It’ll come from everywhere.
“I definitely think that not just one guy is going to be taking all the shots,” Iverson said. “We definitely have guys who are capable of knocking down shots. Everyone can contribute in various ways.”
To show you what kind of night it was offensively for UW, Happ hit a 3-point shot and starters D’Mitrik Trice and Andy Van Vliet didn’t. Happ didn’t even attempt a 3 in his first two college seasons. Meanwhile, Trice and Van Vliet are expected to be effective 3-point shooters.
That was no problem because UW had plenty of options from the outside. It hit 10 of 24 3-point attempts, with Iverson and freshman forward Aleem Ford hitting two each. Iverson in particular looked like he has worked hard on his outside shooting.
“That is going to be a big help definitely come Big Ten season when there’s a lot more scouting and a lot more focus on the double-team aspect of things,” Happ said. “If we’ve got guys shooting like we did tonight, I think we’ll all right in the Big Ten.”
It wasn’t until the Badgers fell behind 10-2 that their offense kicked in. UW hit Northern Iowa with a 33-8 blitz to end the half and Happ had only two of the 33. UW had no trouble finding guys to pick up the slack.
King hit his first four shots — two mid-range jumpers, a turnaround jumper and a 3-pointer — to lead the way with 10 points. Other 3s came from Iverson (2), Ford, guard Brevin Pritzl and freshman guard Brad Davison as UW went 6-for-11 from beyond the arc.
UW went on a 22-1 run early in the second half, with Happ, Ford and forward Alex Illikainen contributing 3s. Gard said he hopes UW can surround Happ with shooters who can make opponents pay for double teaming him.
“It still starts with the decision he makes out of the double team,” Gard said. “I thought he did a good job tonight for the most part of doing that. ... You still have to make shots around it.
“It’s one thing to get it out of the double team, but you’ve got to make sure you have the floor properly spaced. We didn’t a couple times in the second half, but we’ll continue to work on that. And then obviously the final thing is you’ve got to make shots. That always makes the execution out of any double team look really good is when you can make shots on the back side or on the top.”
Does UW have the shooters to make those shots?
“I think so,” Gard said. “I think we’ve got some pretty skilled guys at a variety of positions. ... I think they’re getting more and more comfortable playing on the floor with each other in terms of where people are, what people’s strengths are, what their weaknesses are. That’ll be something that’ll continue to grow. Hopefully, offensively we evolve and continue to grow as the year goes on. We’re nowhere near where we can be.”
Maybe not, but the exhibition victory gave fans a glimpse of where that might be.