Before the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team had even played a game this season, Ethan Happ sat in a hotel ballroom near Chicago and entertained a series of questions about 3-point shooting.
Happ potentially expanding his game to the perimeter was a hot topic the previous season at Big Ten Media Day. This time, the senior center was pleased when a reporter asked about how his supporting cast would fare from beyond the arc.
The Badgers shot 33.5 percent from 3-point range last season, their third-lowest mark ever. Only the 1997-98 (29.7 percent) and 2012-13 (33.0) teams shot worse from beyond the arc.
Happ expects that number to go up this season, and he’s not alone in that belief. In fact, some think UW’s perimeter accuracy will go way up.
“We have a lot of shooters this year,” Happ said.
So far, so good in that department for the No. 22 Badgers (5-1), who return to action tonight when they host North Carolina State (6-0) in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game at the Kohl Center.
UW, which moved up three spots in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll after taking second in the Battle 4 Atlantis last week, is shooting 42.1 percent from 3-point range through its first six games. That’s not a big sample size, by any means, and yet the Badgers will move past the quarter-pole of the regular season after playing two games this week.
Happ has been credited with assists on 17 of UW’s 45 connections from beyond the arc this season.
“Teams are going to play the double-team game because they’re going to say, ‘OK, let everybody else beat us,’ ” UW junior guard Brevin Pritzl said. “It just shot us in the foot last year. We weren’t shooting it well and teams could do that.
“You want to be at least upper 30s (percentage-wise), because then teams are going to be like, ‘OK, we’ve got to run them off the line.’ If we do that, it’s going to open up the floor for Ethan.”
Happ’s confidence back in October was based on what he’d seen during the summer and in preseason practices. There were multiple lineup options that had him surrounded by shooters.
UW’s perimeter attack figured to get a boost with the return of sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice and redshirt freshman wing Kobe King from injuries. Sophomore Brad Davison was fully healthy after playing most of last season with a brace to support his injured left shoulder, a device which limited how high he could lift his left arm and affected his shot.
Plus, everybody in the rotation had more experience under their belt.
“We put a lot of work into it,” UW assistant coach Dean Oliver said of perimeter shooting. “We have guys that are able to shoot and it’s just a matter of time. That’s kind of how shooting is. Sometimes you just need a fresh start and you get that when a new season starts. Guys are really taking advantage of it.”
Especially Trice, who already has made twice as many 3-pointers through six games this season (20) than he did in 10 games during an injury-shortened 2017-18 season. Trice made 30.0 percent of his 40 attempts last season; he’s at 57.1 percent so far this season.
“It’s obviously been great just having everyone back, everyone healthy and we’re playing unselfishly right now,” Trice said.
Trice is bound to come back to earth at some point. The same can be said for sophomore Nate Reuvers, who is 6 of 11 from 3-point range (54.5 percent) after going 12 of 47 (25.5 percent) as a true freshman.
That’s when the Badgers need other perimeter threats to step up and pick up the slack, and there are plenty of options.
Sophomore Trevor Anderson shot 37.6 percent as a true freshman at UW-Green Bay two seasons ago.
Pritzl only attempted two 3-pointers in three games in the Bahamas but is capable of getting hot.
Davison expects to improve on his percentage as a freshman — he shot 35.5 percent — but is off to a slow start (7 of 21).
The best 3-point shooter last season, Aleem Ford, hasn’t even made one yet this season after returning from a knee injury last week.
“There’s going to be a night when (Trice is) off,” Anderson said. “We’ve got Brad, we’ve got me, we’ve got Brev, we’ve got Kobe. Go down the line.
“I think that’s what is going to be scary, especially with that All-American in the middle who can wheel and deal and find everybody. If one guy’s off, we’ve got five other guys who can knock down shots. I really like where we’re at.”