MADISON – Needing to replace significant contributions in every category from last year’s national finalist team, the University of Wisconsin is using its two scrimmages and one exhibition game to find its contributors.
It was only 19 minutes of basketball, but it’s evident that redshirt freshman Ethan Happ is going to be a factor.
On virtually everybody’s list for Big Ten breakout player of the year, Happ was a presence early and often in Wisconsin’s 101-46 exhibition victory over UW-River Falls, scoring 16 points, registering 10 rebounds and filling the stat sheet in countless other ways.
Happ was active early in the low block and never slowed against an undersized Falcons roster. In the first half, Happ scored nine points, seven rebounds (four offensive), two assists and a block that sent Jon Christianson’s 3-pointer deep into the stands.
“He’s awfully comfortable in there,” said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan of Happ in the low post. “He’s a natural around the basket. He works hard for position, and we reward people that work hard. His teammates count on him getting open in there, and he has good hands that are twice the size of most people’s. He’s a presence in there. He’s going to be a factor and he kind of showed that tonight.”
Wisconsin got contributions from 12 different sources, including 16 points from Nigel Hayes, as Ryan experimented with countless combinations and to get the young players adequate time on the court. It didn’t seem to alter the offense too much; Wisconsin shot 54.6 percent from the floor and put six players in double figures.
But Happ was easily the story. He showed a touch of confidence with his ball handling, putting the ball on the court near the free throw line and driving to the hoop for another basket in the paint. His aggressiveness in the low post led to countless opportunities, nabbing the offensive rebound off a missed free throw and hitting the putback, and drawing fouls for free throw opportunities.
And with the uncertainty surrounding freshman Andy Van Vliet’s eligibility, Wisconsin might need to rely on Happ more than ever.
“He just seemed like he has a nice presence with what he’s doing, “said UW-River Falls coach Jeff Berkhof. “He just seems like a complete player, an inside-outplayer like Bo likes. He seems like he’s on the right path.”
Within three minutes Happ began drawing double teams in the post, opening things up on the perimeter for Wisconsin’s guards. On one possession he nabbed an offensive rebound in the face of two defenders and later – with the same two players in his face – hit a cross-court pass to Riley Dearring (10 points) for an open 3-pointer.
Everything he showed – from ball handling to shooting - were things Happ had learned from going against N.B.A. first-round picks Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky in practice all of last season and emphasized more in two-a-day workouts over the summer back home in Milan, Ill.
It’s a main reason why he didn’t take much solace in his performance.
“I had some ups and downs,” said Happ. “I know I had some spots where I could have done better. It’s been awhile since I’ve been out there in the rotation like that, so it was a lot of fun."
Wisconsin went 12 deep with its rotation in the first half, a substitution pattern that included true freshmen Charlie Thomas, Alex Illikainen and Khalil Iverson, and all three didn’t wait long to make a mark on the stat sheet.
Thomas used his long wing span to tip out an offensive rebound to the perimeter on his first possession and showcase a smooth finish for a jumper on his second possession. Iverson flashed to the low post and made an uncontested layup off a feed from Vitto Brown on his first offensive possession and Illikainen promptly his a 3-pointer barely after taking off his warmup.
It was the start of a solid debut for Illikainen and Thomas, who each finished with 12 points and seven rebounds.
“They were comfortable,” said Ryan. “We’ll find out when we scrimmage and start playing, obviously, but it was nice to see.”
But the omission of Van Vliet from the active roster was probably the day’s biggest story.
The tallest player on UW’s roster at 6-11, Van Vliet has had a tough time getting on the court for Wisconsin already. Committing to Wisconsin in the spring, Van Vliet didn’t arrive until the fall due to a paperwork mishap. Now his eligibility is being brought into question by the NCAA.
NCAA rules state that prospective student-athletes have one year to enroll in a collegiate institution following their high school graduation or expected graduation date. Van Vliet played basketball as an amateur outside of that one-year window, which has resulted in the eligibility issue.
Having known about the issue from the start, Wisconsin filed a waiver with the NCAA that was denied earlier in the day. The Badgers plan to appeal the ruling and should receive an answer within two weeks. If denied, Van Vliet would be eligible in 2016-17 and would be a sophomore.
No matter the outcome, it’s another added wrinkle for a team that will have a lot of question marks heading into its Nov.13 season opener against Western Illinois.
“It doesn’t take very long once you send in the appeal, and his is an unusual circumstance, but that didn’t stop all the other teams in the United States from trying to get him,” said Ryan. “It's a long story, (so) we'll see how the appeal goes."