Bad­gers’ Happ can’t hide from at­ten­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - COLLEGE BASKETBALL - BY RO­MAN STUBBS ro­man.stubbs@wash­post.com

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.”

GRE­GORY SHAMUS/GETTY IM­AGES

Ethan Happ has be­come the fo­cus of scout­ing re­ports on Wis­con­sin, which has lost two straight.

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