Badgers’ Happ can’t hide from attention
madison, wis. — Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ maintained his rituals, even after the most difficult week of his season took another ugly turn Thursday night. He left the quiet visiting locker room in Ann Arbor, Mich., answered a few questions from media members about his team’s first losing streak of the season, then boarded a dark bus and placed his customary postgame phone call to his father, Randy.
They spoke about the waves of double-teams coming Happ’s way. They spoke about the turnovers, defensive lapses and missed opportunities of this 6458 setback at Michigan, which left the Badgers in a three-way tie atop the Big Ten along with Purdue and Maryland.
“The last thing we talked about,” Randy Happ said, “is, okay, now what do you got to do to make sure you win the conference?”
The Big Ten’s most versatile player wrestled with that question as he returned to practice Friday in Madison, where the 11th-ranked Badgers (21-5, 10-3) began their preparation for Sunday’s showdown against No. 23 Maryland (22-4, 10-3).
Happ’s rise has been an exercise in adapting. After arriving on campus as a lightly recruited 6-foot-7 slasher from tiny Milan, Ill., the redshirt sophomore has grown into a 6-10 post presence. He averages a team-high 14.5 points and entered the weekend second in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (60.6), third in rebounding (9.1), second in steals (2.0) and 10th in blocked shots (1.1).
While senior forward Nigel Hayes was tabbed as the league’s preseason player of the year, headlining a team that returned all five starters from last season’s Sweet 16 team, Happ has emerged as the centerpiece of most opposing coaches’ scouting reports. That has forced Happ to adjust again. As Hayes held court with a group of reporters Friday, calling his team “optimistically frustrated” after two losses in five days, Happ was in the background working on kick-out passes from the post.
Those have been at the forefront as of late. In last Sunday’s 66-59 loss to Northwestern, Happ was swarmed with constant double-teams and finished with nine points on 3-for-8 shooting along with five assists against four turnovers. He vowed to bounce back at Michigan and turned in an electrifying first half — of his team’s 14 field goals, he made eight and assisted on four. But while Happ finished with 22 points (on 10for-13 shooting) and six assists, he took just four shots in the second half as Michigan threw more double-teams his way.
Faced with the increased attention, “there’s not a lot I can do about it other than keep getting the ball to my teammates and have them make plays when they do double,” said Happ, who also leads the Badgers with 2.9 assists per game. “And when they don’t double, just make plays for myself.”
Happ never envisioned playing under the basket when he first arrived on campus. He was discovered at an AAU tournament just before his junior year of high school, when he had a standout performance in game against future Ohio State recruit Keita Bates-Diop. When Happ arrived in Wisconsin, he expected immediately to join the rotation as a small forward.
He admits he wasn’t mentally prepared for the rigors of college basketball. Then-coach Bo Ryan assigned Happ to the scout team, and as the tallest player, he was forced to play center against a roster that featured future first-round NBA draft picks Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Happ traveled with Wisconsin as it made a run to the national title game that season — the Badgers lost to Duke in the final — which was satisfying as a die-hard fan of college basketball. But it also fueled his desire to get back onto the floor.
“Very humbling, very difficult. I wasn’t mentally prepared to be, not only not one of the key guys, I guess, but not even a guy,” Happ said of his redshirt season. “Throughout that year on scout team, I was playing post all the time, going against Frank. I didn’t envision myself being a post player, but I always did envision myself having success here.”
The success started to come last season as a redshirt freshman, when Happ averaged 12.4 points and 7.9 rebounds. He had learned a bevy of post moves from Kaminsky and sharpened other areas of his game mimicking other players during his redshirt year — and he grew into his body. Listed at 6-10 and 232 pounds, Happ has earned 76 percent of his team’s reps at center this season, according to KenPom.com.
He also has closely observed how Hayes and fellow seniors Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown lead the team. Happ does not take a vocal leadership role on the team with four senior starters, but then again he hasn’t needed to.
“That’s not really his cup of tea. He does what he needs to do, and he’s doing a good job of it,” Hayes said. “The vocal part falls to other players.”
While Happ has cast aside questions about his potential NBA future — he said Friday that he’s not focused on that step of his career yet — he also isn’t concerned about how he might lead the team next season should he return. He was thinking about his roots back in Milan earlier this past week, where he’s constantly reminded by former teachers that he’s still a role model to the teenagers there. And he’s leaned on his father immensely, trying to navigate the next challenge of his surprising rise.
“It is going to be a maturing process for him. It is a tough stretch,” Randy Happ said. “The toughest thing is just losing. He just absolutely hates to lose.”
Ethan Happ has become the focus of scouting reports on Wisconsin, which has lost two straight.