MADISON – Ethan Happ has spent a lot of time watching through the first two games of Wisconsin’s basketball season. Fouls, spotty defense and a lack of rhythm have relegated him to playing the fewest minutes out of the starting lineup in the small sample size.
It’s still a work in progress but the redshirt freshman finally flashed a good helping of his potential Tuesday, as his 17 points tied a game high in a 78-64 victory over North Dakota at the Kohl Center.
“I’m going to do whatever I can to help the team win,” said Happ. “I don’t care if I score two points or if I score 17 points. It really doesn’t matter to me what I contribute as long as our team wins. I just need to give it 100 percent and stay out of foul trouble.”
All five starters scored in double figures for the Badgers (2-1), who grinded through their third game in five days. Now Wisconsin will get on a plane Wednesday and head to New York for the 2K Classic - its first road trip of the season – and a pair of games that starts with Georgetown (0-2) Friday.
“We’ve come a long ways as a group, but we still have a lot to learn,” said junior Zak Showalter (10 points). “Offensively we’re starting to hit some shots and guys are starting to be comfortable on the court with each other. But we’re still learning a lot of things on defense, and we’re still looking to fill those.”
Pegged by many as the team’s breakout player of the year, Happ’s defense had been the biggest culprit to his lack of major minutes through two games, picking up two fouls in the first half of each game.
That resulted in affecting his rhythm and his overall play, finishing with four points, six rebounds and three fouls in 19 minutes in the loss to Western Illinois and eight points, four rebounds and four fouls in 18 minutes in the victory over Siena.
“The coaches definitely got on me about it, but it doesn’t take a brainiac to know you’re not going to play with two fouls in the first half,” said Happ. “I’ve had two fouls early in both games. I’ve paid the price. I didn’t play very much. I felt like I could have helped the team in our loss.”
Following Sunday’s win, UW coach Bo Ryan said Happ could have picked up some bad habits on the scout team last season when the Badgers gave him carte blanche to hack Frank Kaminsky. That wasn’t a problem against North Dakota (1-1).
Committing only one foul in 14 first-half minutes, Happ led the team with 11 points on 5 of 7 shooting, and six rebounds, including four offensive rebounds and a put back at the buzzer.
“That’s what he has to do for us,” said Ryan. “Fifteen feet and in he’s pretty tough.”
But as has been the case in the season’s early goings, Happ picked up three fouls in the second half, limiting him to six points and 11 minutes. He still managed to finish with a team-high seven rebounds, including five on the offensive glass.
“It was sporadic when he was on the scout team,” said Ryan of Happ last season. “You have days where you scratch your head and other days you use two hands to scratch your head, meaning he was doing some good stuff … He was having fun out there.”
In reality Happ was one of the few positive from the first half for Wisconsin as the program continues to go through growing pains. After scoring 14 points in just over five minutes, Wisconsin managed 21 points the rest of the half, including making only 5 of 22 attempts over a 12 minute stretch.
UW led by 15, however, because North Dakota turned the ball over 11 times, resulting in 16 fewer shots attempts. The Badgers scored 10 points off the miscues, including a steal by Happ that resulted in a coast-to-coast layup that he finished with a behind-the-back dribble and a one-handed dunk. Wisconsin forced 17 turnovers while committing only six.
The second half was much better offensively for Wisconsin, shooting 53.6 percent. And while the Badgers never let North Dakota back into the game, UW backtracked defensively after allowing North Dakota to also shoot 53.6 percent. UND was led by Geno Crandall’s 19 points.
“(Coach) wasn’t too happy with us after this game,” said Happ. “Even though we got the win, there’s still a lot of stuff we need to work on and defense is one of those key things.”
Bronson Koenig matched Happ with 17 points while Vitto Brown scored 12 points while shooting 50 percent from the floor. Junior Nigel Hayes had another off-night shooting (11 points on 4-for-13 shooting) and is hitting just 40.6 percent of his shots through three games.
Hayes is still finding other ways to produce, however, after finishing with seven assists and zero turnovers. For the season, Hayes has 15 assists and no miscues to go along with Koenig’s 10-to-4 ratio.
“They’d have to lock me up if I said I didn’t like that,” said Ryan. “They’d find a room for me somewhere.”