The No. 4 Virginia Cavaliers picked up a nice win over the No. 25 Wisconsin Badgers last week in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis. De’Andre Hunter, the MVP of the early-season tournament, poured in 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting, his third game over 20 points on the season. The real story of the game, however, was how the Hoos handled the Badgers’ most dangerous scorer. Defensively, Virginia had to take on Ethan Happ, one of the most dynamic post players in the country.
Upon first glance, you may think that Virginia didn’t succeed against Happ. He finished with 22 points on 11-for-19 shooting (58%) , right around what he was averaging through his first five games (17 points per game, 57% shooting) of the season. But there is so much more to the story.
After two games out of the starting lineup with back stiffness, Virginia big man Jack Salt returned to starting five. Salt, at 6-10 and 250 pounds, was exactly the body UVA head coach Tony Bennett wanted on the 6-10, 237 pound Happ. A dying breed in the basketball world, Salt is a true center. He’s not very fast (that’s a big frame to get moving quickly), but his defensive footwork and fundamentals are solid.
The biggest difficulty with guarding Happ is his ability to pass accurately, as well as his ability to score in the post. If you don’t double him, he is good at getting the upper hand one-on-one. If you do double him, he passes it out to one of his teammates like D’Mitrik Trice (who went 7-for-8 from three against Oklahoma in the semifinals) for a three.
Check out this video that helps explain Virginia’s adjustment in-game against Happ:
As the video states, after Happ was able to get out of early doubles and help his team get easy buckets, Coach Bennett decided to switch things up defensively. Mostly, he let Salt and the bigs (Mamadi Diakite and, at times, De’Andre Hunter) battle it out with Happ to force him to truly work for his buckets. With Salt in the game (he played 26 minutes), Happ went 6-for-12 from the field with four turnovers and committed two fouls. With Salt on the bench, Happ hit 4-of-5 shots he took, turned the ball over twice, and only committed one foul. He did not shoot a single free throw in the game, the first time this season he didn’t make it to the line.
Although Salt wasn’t always on him when he was in the game, the plan clearly worked. Happ finished with six assists (most of which were just damn good passes), but also turned it over six times—the most in any one game this season. Salt’s presence was also noticed in making it difficult for the Badgers to even get the ball to Happ in the post, as outlined by the video. When he did get it, the Hoos made it their mission to make scoring as tough as possible.
Outside of Happ, Wisconsin shot just 34% and went 2-for-11 from three in the game. The post play staying home and holding their own allowed Virginia’s perimeter defenders to really harass the Badgers.
With a game at No. 24 Maryland looming tomorrow evening, the Hoos will have another tough test in the post as they face Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith. Fernando (6-10, 240) is a natural matchup for Salt. Smith (6-10, 215) will see a lot of Diakite, and potentially Jay Huff. Unlike Wisconsin with Nate Reuvers (55% shooter from three), neither of Maryland’s bigs are a real threat to either shoot or make threes.
Most likely, we’ll see the post double make a return tomorrow night. Well executed doubles in the post could lead to turnovers, especially from Fernando who has five assists to 13 turnovers. Fernando is a 77% shooter, taking high percentage shots (dunks and layups). Salt and the Hoos will have to limit those open looks.
The Hoos and Terps tip off at 7:30pm, and the game will be broadcast by ESPN.