He Seems So Nice, But...
The face of a ruthless killer after a successful hunt. [Paul Sherman]
John Beilein can be evil. Just ask Ethan Happ.
Michigan's first two offensive sets against Wisconsin put Happ in no-win situations and set the tone for the rest of the game. Here's the first, which features Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman making an elaborate off-ball cut after a dribble handoff:
MAAR's cut is gorgeous on its own: it looks like he'll run along the baseline to the opposite corner, a common maneuver in Beilein's offense, but instead doubles back and curls around a Moe Wagner screen that gets MAAR two steps ahead of his defender, Vitto Brown.
The real beauty of this play, however, comes right about the moment Derrick Walton releases the pass. Against almost any other team in the country, Happ wouldn't hesitate to slide into the paint and prevent the layup. Michigan has Wagner, however, and three points are greater than two. After MAAR curls around the screen, Wagner pops out to the perimeter. Even though the ball is already headed MAAR's way, Happ is preoccupied enough with Wagner to take a false step towards the three-point line:
That moment of hesitation provides MAAR with the space he needs for a layup.
That play was pretty mean. The real evil comes on the next possession.
[Hit THE JUMP.]
With their very first play, Michigan has forced Happ to think about how much he can commit to helping in the paint versus sticking to a dangerous outside shooter. You can probably guess what Beilein schemed up for play two:
Wagner sets a perfunctory screen for MAAR, who immediately dishes it to Walton while Wagner continues along the perimeter to set an off-ball screen for Zak Irvin. Irvin, like MAAR on the first play, is curling around an off-ball cut and threatening the paint. Happ responds accordingly, sinking to the middle.
That, of course, is far too much space to give Wagner at the three-point line. Happ does a decent job of recovering; it's still too late.
For the rest of the game, Happ was neutralized on both ends of the floor. The threat of Wagner shooting threes was enough to open up the paint, even though he didn't hit another triple the rest of the way. One of the most disruptive interior defenders in the country didn't tally a single block or steal; Michigan outscored Wisconsin 30-28 in the paint.
We'll see how much the five-out attack throws off Oklahoma State (and, basketball gods willing, Louisville). Brian says Cowboys center Mitchell Solomon is about as mobile as Happ; that should give Michigan openings to exploit.
DJ Wilson, Part-Time Center
The adjustment that neutralized Happ on the other end of the floor occurred at halftime:
Beilein says at halftime, DJ Wilson wanted to guard Happ by himself, no double team
— Minh Doan (@_minhdoan) March 12, 2017
We've seen DJ Wilson cameo at the five for brief stints down the stretch; the second half against Wisconsin was his most extended action there, IIRC. Happ was 4-for-8 with two offensive boards, two assists, and two turnovers in the first half as Michigan went with Moe Wagner, Mark Donnal, and frequent double-teams to defend him. In the second half, with Wilson mostly playing him straight-up, Happ went 2-for-8 with four offensive rebounds (three on one volleyball-like possession), one assist, and one turnover.
What stands out from the second half is how little Happ was involved. He had the four-shot possession to pad the numbers; otherwise, he only used six possessions, producing five points—he assisted on a Brown three when Irvin sunk into the paint without committing to a double-team—and turning it over once. When Happ was able to get involved, Wilson's length gave him trouble:
Wilson's ability to guard true fives or defend on the wing opens up a lot of possibilities for Beilein. If Moe Wagner picks up an early foul or has some trouble guarding a particular post player, Beilein can potentially swap Wagner's and Wilson's defensive assignments if the opponent's power forward isn't too quick for Wagner.
In the Wisconsin game, Beilein was able to keep an ineffective Wagner on the bench and play smaller lineups with Duncan Robinson or Xavier Simpson (or both) on the floor, with Irvin usually picking up the four on defense. This also took Mark Donnal almost entirely out of the equation. Donnal played four first-half minutes; in that stretch, the Badgers scored ten points on six possessions. He played one second-half possession, fouling Nigel Hayes after biting on a midrange pump-fake and immediately heading back to the bench.
Wilson's offensive outbursts against Purdue and Wisconsin got much of the post-BTT attention, but it's his defense that could be the key to a long tourney run.