At the start of Wisconsin's season, the offense was pretty simple: get the ball to Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin's only two real contributors remaining from last season's team, and let them go to work. If you watched the Badgers' magical run from last season, this logic made sense.
Hayes was phenomenal as a freshman and even more so as a sophomore, and Koenig stepped in for Traevon Jackson and performed even better than the senior did. So when Bo Ryan had no choice but to start a redshirt freshman at center, most Badger fans figured he would take a year or two to develop into a solid player, and then become a star by his junior or senior season. This was not the case with Ethan Happ.
While Hayes has struggled mightily through the first two games and Koenig has been very inconsistent, old reliable Ethan Happ has been a constant. Through two tournament games, Happ has 33 points, 16 rebounds and is shooting 13-18 from the floor, or a casual 72%. At this point, the Badgers go as Ethan Happ goes.
Against Pittsburgh, Happ was the go-to guy down the stretch, making what ultimately was the game winning jumper and grabbing a defensive rebound in the waning seconds to seal the victory for the Badgers. His Notre Dame counterpart, however, will be Zach Auguste, a true veteran for the Fighting Irish.
Auguste, like Happ, has been dominant in his touches so far in the tournament. He's combined for 26 points, 27 rebounds, 4 blocks and is shooting 86% on 12-14 shooting. For two teams that generally produce great guards and perimeter play, the matchup of the two big men could ultimately be the deciding factor.
Because both big men are so aggressive, they always run the risk of being in foul trouble. This was the case with Happ against Xavier, and Charlie Thomas snagged some of Happ's minutes but was not nearly as reliable. Auguste hasn't had any foul troubles in the tournament so far, but against Duke and North Carolina, teams with far superior frontlines to Michigan and Stephen F. Austin, the senior had four fouls in both games.
In a wild and unpredictable college basketball season, it seems fitting that two big men on Notre Dame and Wisconsin could be the focal point of a Sweet Sixteen. Neither team realistically expected to be here as a 6 and 7 seed, but Notre Dame slid by playing two double-digit seeds and Wisconsin was able to outshoot Xavier down the stretch to make it to this point.
If Happ can continue his torrid streak and force Auguste into foul trouble, this could be extremely problematic for Notre Dame, a team that has Bonzie Colson but little interior depth behind Auguste and Colson. Happ has shown time and time again he's capable of rising to the occasion, and there's no better stage than the Sweet Sixteen against one of the country's premier senior big men. Wisconsin just hopes that Nigel, Bronson and co. can follow his lead.