By Andrew Kahn
Ethan Happ is fine if you use the word embarrassing to describe his play last season. Every time he took the court, he was overmatched on both ends. The good news: It happened in practice, and the competition was the National Player of the Year. Happ, now a redshirt freshman, is a starter for Wisconsin averaging 11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, and a Big Ten-leading 1.8 steals. His season going against Frank Kaminsky helped earn him the conference’s Freshman of the Year award.
Like all players recruited by a Division I school, Happ, from Milan, Illinois, was a star at Rockridge High School. But the Badgers frontcourt was loaded when the 6’9” forward arrived in Madison: Kaminsky, a senior, was joined by another first-round pick, junior Sam Dekker, redshirt senior Duje Dukan (a member of the Sacramento Kings organization), and sophomore Nigel Hayes, a current Badger with NBA potential.
Happ wanted to play at least 10 minutes a game, but the coaching staff told him that was no guarantee. He might get 15 one night but not see the floor again for three games. “I wasn’t mentally prepared to do that,” Happ says, and so he participated not in games, but in practice.
“I got to college and all of a sudden I’m getting laughed at or shown up on the court by Frank or Sam or Nigel,” he says. “It was one of the more frustrating things I had to go through. It was a great motivator. I think that’s what has made me so good this year. I didn’t want that to happen this year, so I put in a lot of time.”
Happ scored a career-high 25, on 10-of-15 shooting, in an overtime win against Indiana on Jan. 26. He hit the 20-point mark two other times in Big Ten play, and scored the game-winner with 10 seconds left in a one-point win over Michigan State. He has proved adept at scoring with his back to the basket and often commands double teams. Considering the post is a relatively new position for him, it’s clear his apprenticeship under Kaminsky paid off.
Happ was a 6’2” point guard his freshman year of high school. By the middle of his sophomore season, he was 6’6” and moved to the wing, where he slashed to the hoop. By his senior year, he played with his back to the hoop occasionally but didn’t commit to it full time until college. In his first season doing it in games, he looks like a veteran, spinning off his man for layups or finding an open teammate when a second defender helps.
“My footwork has a lot to do with playing against Frank last year,” Happ says. “Guarding him and knowing how many times he countered me and got me in the air—it taught me to stay patient. When he was guarding me, as a 7-foot senior who knows the tricks of the trade, if I rushed or didn’t have great footwork, I wouldn’t even get a shot off.”
Happ has progressed on the defensive end throughout the season. “Early in the season, I couldn’t guard a big or a guard. I was a liability to my team.”
Simply getting more game reps against guys three inches taller and 20 pounds bigger has helped. And his steal rate proves he’s maintained the nose for the ball he displayed as a youngster playing in the backcourt, and in the defensive backfield on the football field, which he did until he was a high school sophomore.
Once 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten, Wisconsin finished the regular season 20-11 and 12-6 in league, earning the six seed in the conference tournament. The Badgers will play the winner of Nebraska and Rutgers on Thursday and, should they advance, Maryland in the quarterfinals. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm currently projects Wisconsin as an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Kaminsky, who led Wisconsin to a national title game appearance last season, isn’t walking through the door. But his impact on Happ continues to benefit the Badgers.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college football and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.