MADISON - A couple months ago, Ethan Happ was arguably the best player in the Quad Cities area, able to use his athleticism to score at the rim and hit jumpers from the perimeter.
Fast forward to his first few weeks practicing with the University of Wisconsin, Happ is going against the Big Ten preseason player of the year and a first-team All-American in Frank Kaminsky, who has three years of experience on the wide-eyed freshman.
Welcome to college basketball, especially in one of the nation’s premier conferences.
“I couldn’t ask for a better intro to college basketball playing against the best guys in the country,” said Happ. “I couldn’t ask for more and to have that matchup every day, whether it’s Vitto (Brown), Nigel (Hayes), Sam (Dekker) or Frank, it’s going to get me better no matter what.”
The only scholarship player in Wisconsin’s three-player 2014 recruiting class, Happ brings an impressive resume into a loaded Badgers’ frontcourt.
A two-time AP first-team All-State selection as both a junior and senior, Happ averaged a double-double (33 points, 15 rebounds) as a senior at Rockridge High School and led the Rockets to a 28-1 record and No. 1 ranking in Class 2A. In the spring before coming to Wisconsin, Happ was named MVP of U-18 Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Germany, averaging 19.1 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.4 steals and 1.9 blocks through seven games.
“He’s a great worker,” said UW assistant coach Gary Close, who was the lead recruiter for Happ. “He’s in the gym all the time. You walk by there and the ball is bouncing and he’s in there working on his game. He’s very receptive to coaching and asking what he needs to do to get on the floor. He’s got a motor, and he brings it in practice. He’s not afraid to compete. Because of that, you give him a chance to give him some minutes.”
Happ was originally labeled as a product player coming out of high school, knowing for the last year that he needed to add some size to his frame in order to compete with other big men in the conference. Since signing his national letter of intent a year ago next week, Happ has added 30 pounds to his frame and mixed things up in the low post against Kaminsky and Brown, the surprising sophomore who had made some big strides having hardly playing last year.
“I have to secure my position, not like in high school when I was one of the stronger kids,” said Happ. “I’m still working to get my strength up to where they are, but you can’t just be standing straight up on the block and expect to get the ball. You have work for your position and vice versa on the defensive end. You have to work to get around them, chest up and then play good defense.”
With Wisconsin returning its top four scorers in the frontcourt in Kaminsky, Dekker, Hayes and Dukan and the emergence of Brown, Happ knows space is limited. During the annual red-white scrimmage, Happ played 31 minutes and finished with three points. He didn’t make a shot from the field, but finished with eight rebounds and two blocks.
According to Close, the idea is to get either Brown, Happ or both ready to play based on matchups and team health.
“Somebody’s got to get some minutes in there, and (Ethan)’s right there battling with everybody else,” said Close. “I’ve been happy with the way he’s played. He’s competed. He’s got a lot of toughness to him. He does some things really well right now. He’s had his moments. He’s got a chance to be in the mix.”
Tonight will be a good indicator of where Happ is with No.3 Wisconsin playing its lone exhibition game at the Kohl Center against UW-Parkside, a team that went 23-7 and played in the NCAA Division II tournament a year ago. The Rangers return four double-digit scorers from a team that averaged 82 points per game last season.
After UW’s lone exhibition game and before its season opener against Northern Kentucky Nov.14, Happ plans to sit down with the coaching staff and hopefully make a decision on his season.
“I’m just taking it day by day and battle out there on the court; that’s not going to change whether I’m going to redshirt or not,” said Happ. “Until they give me a notice one way or the other, I’m just going to go at it day by day the same way.”