In the weeks leading up to the 2016-’17 college basketball season, BTPowerhouse will be releasing its preview series breaking down each Big Ten team. These will come in a set of series previewing the overall team, the team’s backcourt, wings, and big men, and the team’s schedule. Each post will take a look at its topic in-depth and give predictions on the upcoming season.
This post looks at Wisconsin’s frontcourt, a unit that brings back an experienced trio of starters that offer a variety of skill sets. The Badgers also have several bench players who were forced into playing time on last season’s young team, something that will likely serve Wisconsin well this winter.
'BTPowerhouse Preview' - Wisconsin Frontcourt:
2015-16 All-Big Ten Qualifiers: Nigel Hayes, First Team; Ethan Happ, Third Team (Media), Second Team (Coaches), Freshman of the Year, All-Defensive Team
Key Departures: None
Key Additions: Andy Van Vliet, Aleem Ford
Wisconsin will have one of the top starting frontcourts in the Big Ten this season. While they don’t necessarily have a dynamic shot blocker or a massive body in the middle, they have three returning starters with complementary skill sets that will be a difficult matchup for any team. If Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ are the exact same players as last year, Wisconsin will compete for the Big Ten title. If they come back better, the Badgers can be as good as anyone in the nation.
Wisconsin’s entire 2015-16 starting rotation, including the frontcourt, returns intact. The headliner is still senior Nigel Hayes. The 6’8”, 240-pound small forward enters his senior year as the Big Ten preseason player of the year.
Hayes was a key part of Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Four runs in 2014 and 2015 before becoming the go-to guy last season. Hayes has become less of a post presence as his career has progressed, but he still has the abilities to get it on the block and score or get to the free-throw line — where he shot 73.6 percent (190-258) last season. The addition of Happ, who was strictly a low-post player last season, also took away some of the space that Hayes enjoyed when his frontcourt mates, Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, were threats from the perimeter.
Therefore, Hayes tended to rely too much on his outside jumper last season, and didn’t connect at the same rate after overhauling his shooting form in the previous offseason. Hayes shot 36.8 percent (161-438) from the field last year, including 29.3 percent (39-133) from the 3-point line. The lagging shooting numbers didn’t prevent Hayes from being productive, as he averaged 15.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors.
It’ll be interesting to watch how Hayes attacks this season. The Badgers should have more outside shooting to open up the paint for Hayes, whether he attacks off the dribble or in the post.
The best freshman the Badgers have had since Hayes will be playing alongside him in the frontcourt. The 6’10”, 232-pound Happ was the surprise of the Big Ten season last year.
Happ is a somewhat unconventional player in Wisconsin’s system. The redshirt sophomore does much of his work around the basket. He’s continual movement never lets his defender get comfortable. If he doesn’t beat the defender with his pre-catch positioning, he unleashes a flurry of pump fakes and pivots before turning for one of his half hooks or layups. He didn’t shy away from contact as a freshman, but had some trouble finishing around the rim, something that will likely improve with more experience and time in the weight room.
Happ averaged 12.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.3 assist per game last year on his way to being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a member of the media’s All-Big Ten Third Team. He also finished with a Wisconsin freshman-record 10 double-doubles and was the third NCAA freshman in the last 15 seasons to have 400 points, 60 steals and 30 blocks.
Fans have been wondering if Happ will add a jump shot to his game — because Wisconsin fans are used to that from their big men. Happ shot 53.8 percent (163-303) from the field last year, but rarely stepped out for a jumper. The safe bet is that Happ eventually adds at least a mid-range jumper, but it might be a year or two down the road. Happ primarily stayed on the block offensively during Wisconsin’s Red-White Scrimmage on Sunday, missing his only 3-point attempt.
On the other side of the court, Happ can get himself in foul trouble, but his aggressiveness visibly frustrates opponents and earned him a spot on the 2015-16 Big Ten All-Defensive Team. The Milan, Ill. averaged 1.8 steals per game last season, leading the Big Ten with 63 steals, while also leading the Badgers with 32 blocks. Happ was at it again during Sunday’s scrimmage, picking junior forward Aaron Moesch’s pocket after Moesch had grabbed a defensive rebound.
Brown, the third returning starter, might have made the biggest jump for the Badgers last season. After playing sparingly in the Final Four seasons, Brown took on a larger role last year with the departures of Kaminsky, Dekker and Duje Dukan. The 6’8” senior became a strong spot-up shooter and Wisconsin’s most consistent 3-point threat. Brown averaged 9.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game as a junior, shooting 44.7 percent (130-291) from the field and a team-high 40.0 percent (38-95) from the 3-point line.
Brown showed some moves inside, but will likely continue to play on the perimeter to open up the paint for Happ and Hayes. He attacked the basket off the dribble several times in the Red-White scrimmage, which would be a nice response if defenders close out strong on him at the 3-point line.
While Hayes, Happ and Brown will play the bulk of the minutes, the Badgers have a number of players that will look to add depth to the frontcourt.
Charles Thomas IV and Alex Illikainen were forced into action a little earlier than expected as freshman last season. They each showed some ability, while also clearly not being ready to play big roles.
The 6’8”, 252-pound Thomas is the biggest body on the roster. Thomas averaged 2.3 points and 2.0 rebounds per game in 31 appearances last season, playing 9.1 minutes per game. He primarily did his work in the paint, but showed a willingness to shoot from behind the arc, shooting 26.7 percent (4-15) on 3-pointers.
Illikainen has the smoother stroke. The numbers didn’t quite catch up with the form last season, but the 6’9” Illikainen shot a respectable 41.3 percent (26-63) from the field and .321 percent (9-28) from the 3-point line. Illikainen played 9.8 minutes per game in 33 appearances as a freshman, averaging 2.2 points and 1.5 rebounds per game. He’ll likely need to improve defensively before seeing regular playing time, as he was physically exposed at times last season.
The tallest player on the roster is Andy Van Vliet. On a veteran team, Van Vliet is one of the lone unknowns. The 7-footer from Belgium was forced to sit out last year due to an NCAA violation, because he didn’t enroll in college within one year of graduating high school.
The sophomore spent his lost year working on his body, bulking up to 224 pounds. He is very long and should be a shot-blocking threat, but he still may not be ready to bang with some of the better post players in the Big Ten.
Offensively, Van Vliet will likely spend more time on the perimeter. Fans have heard Van Vliet is a shooter, but no one has seen it unless they were at practice last season. Van Vliet banked in his first shot of Sunday’s scrimmage, a 3-pointer from near the top of the key. He nailed a second 3-pointer several positions later and finished the day 2-for-5 from behind the arc.
The other frontcourt newcomer is Aleem Ford, although the Badgers likely won’t need the 6’8” freshman forward this year.
There’s a little bit of everything in the Wisconsin frontcourt. Head coach Greg Gard has the options necessary to run his offense, while the Wisconsin defense should be cohesive after playing together all of last season. The versatility of Wisconsin’s frontcourt was key to last season’s turnaround and will play a big role in determining how far the Badgers go this spring.