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To stop Wisconsin, Northwestern has to slow down Ethan Happ

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The Wisconsin big man is one of the best players in not just the conference, but the country.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Ethan Happ doesn’t necessarily look the part. He’s tall, yes — 6-foot-10 — and has solid size at 232 pounds, but those aren’t measurables that jump off the page. He’s not going to overpower you, he’s not going to jump over you, and he’s not going to out-shoot you: He has one career field goal outside the painted area.

What he does have, though, is fantastic ability with the ball in his hands, a fundamental understanding of his offense and the instincts to be in the right place and make the right play. Basically, he’s the epitome of what has made Wisconsin so good for so long.

Happ is just behind Caleb Swanigan as a Big Ten Player of the Year frontrunner and is a legitimate darkhorse National Player of the Year candidate, too. His biggest contributions come as a defender; Happ might be the best defensive player in the country.

The question facing Northwestern is how to stop him when the Badgers are on offense.

Happ has been tearing up Big Ten opponents on that end, too. He’s averaging 16.2 points per game in conference play, shooting over 53 percent from the field and pulling down nine rebounds per game. We delve into the film of his past two games — a 20-point masterpiece on 8 of 10 shooting against Indiana and an eight-point struggle against Nebraska — to see what makes him so good and how Northwestern can limit him.

Around the rim

Happ does his work exclusively in the paint, so one would think that letting him catch it outside the paint would be a solid defensive strategy. But Happ is really good with the ball in his hands and both willing and able to put it on on the floor to score.

Happ is also extremely crafty around the basket. If you try to front him and prevent the pass, he’s long enough to catch the ball over the front. Wisconsin creates good angles to get their big man the ball in prime position for him to score. He is very composed in the lane, even with bodies all around him.

Happ may seem like a traditional back-to-the-basket scorer, but his willingness to put the ball on the floor to create advantageous angles is what sets him apart.

Passing out of the post

Happ is averaging 2.7 assists per game, second-most on the team behind his point guard, Bronson Koenig. Happ has great vision and his size allows him to see over the defenses, even when they come with double-teams. In the clip below, Indiana comes with a late double, and as soon as Josh Newkirk begins his rotation over, Happ spots D'Mitrik Trice open across the court.

Happ again shows off his cross-court passing ability below. As soon as the delayed double-team comes, he skips it across to Vitto Brown, whose man has come down on the double. Brown makes the extra pass, leading to a wide open three for Zak Showalter.

Doubling

The best way to slow Happ is to double him, but as shown above, that runs the risk of being burned by Wisconsin’s other talented options. The best way to approach this is with smart double-teaming that comes before Happ is allowed to face the basket. If you cut off his angles and passing lanes, Happ can struggle. Nebraska did a great job of this.

In the below example, Happ catches it closer to the baseline than he would like to. When Jack McVeigh, a lanky 6-foot-8 forward, comes down to double, Happ has no way to pass over him and can’t go baseline either. Notice how Happ’s first dribble is toward his own bench to try to escape the double, rather than toward the basket. Threat neutralized.

In a similar example, the Huskers actually force a turnover here.

Nebraska did a great job of taking away Happ’s angles, too. Even when he got good position in the example below, Ed Morrow Jr. forced him under the basket, and when McVeigh came with the delayed double team, Wisconsin’s star had nowhere to go.

Ethan Happ is a really, really good basketball player. He’s an excellent rebounder, an elite defender, a crafty finisher and overall just a skilled big man who can dominate single coverage and set up his teammates to take advantage of double-teams. But with well-timed and well-positioned double-teams, the Wildcats can at least somewhat limit him offensively, and that would be a major plus for their chances to pull off the upset in Madison.