WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Ethan Happ knows how far he’s come in such a short time for the University of Wisconsin. That was abundantly clear when he started studying the game film from his first career Big Ten game against Purdue on Dec.29.
In a word? Not pretty.
“There were so many times where I just was not sure of my shot,” said Happ. “I should have shot the ball right at the elbow. When I got into the paint, I kind of shied away from contact.”
Happ made 1 of 8 field-goal attempts, didn’t get to the free-throw line and finished with two points, three rebounds and three fouls in 16 minutes in Wisconsin’s 61-55 loss, a game in which the Boilermakers controlled the low post by scoring 34 points in the paint. It feels like an eternity ago in more ways than one.
After the two teams played the first Big Ten conference game of the season at the Kohl Center, Wisconsin (20-10, 12-5 Big Ten) will play the final game of the conference schedule tonight against the 15th-ranked Boilermakers (23-7, 11-6) at Mackey Arena (6:30 p.m. CT).
If Wisconsin wins, the Badgers clinch a share of second place in the conference and earn a double bye into Friday’s Big Ten tournament quarterfinals as the No.3 seed. Lose and Wisconsin will play the night cap Thursday as the No.6 seed.
Needless to say there’s a lot on the line for the Badgers in terms of seeding, but the fact that the Badgers are even in this position – winners of 11 of their last 12 – is surprising to most fans considering the 9-9 start overall and beginning the Big Ten 1-4.
Assistant coach Lamont Paris won’t use the word “surprised” to label how far they've come in two months and a couple days, but there’s no denying that there’s been plenty of growth.
“We thought they would develop; we didn’t know how quickly they would develop and how it would translate to wins and losses,” said Paris. “We’ve been pleased, obviously, how it’s turned itself into wins. We knew there was a lot of room for improvement.
“How rapidly it was going to happen? There were a lot of factors involved. Our leadership really took leadership. We expected they would get better, play better, trust each other more and trust the team more.”
The improvement for Wisconsin comes across the board. Offensively, UW has gone from 41.8 percent overall and 33.6 percent from 3-point range to 43.4 percent and 35.9 percent, respectively. Turnovers are down 0.8 per game, steals are up 0.9 and opponents are scoring 1.5 points less per game. It not seem like much until it's pointed out Wisconsin is 2-4 in games decided by two points or less, not including a pair of overtime games.
What the numbers don’t reflect is how the Badgers have improved with their spacing on both ends of the floor, leading to more balance and more confidence. Happ has been one of the players that benefited most from the experience of going against Purdue’s frontcourt in Big Ten game one. In fact, Happ averaged 16.2 points in the seven games following the Big Ten opener.
“(Purdue) was a little eye-opening, just how physical everything was and how big the competition was,” said Happ. “I think since then, I’ve seen some guys that were about their height and their size. I’ve prepared better now than playing in the nonconference against guys that weren’t 7-2, 260 pounds.”
Averaging 11.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks per game, the only player in the Big Ten averaging at least those numbers, Happ has taken advantage of former UW forward Rashard Griffith’s presence at practice to learn some tips about finishing through contact.
“He said going against bigger guys you just have to go through their chest and then they won’t be able to block it if you go through their chest and extend the ball,” Happ said. “Regardless of calling a foul or not, that’s how you can attack them.”
Happ also feels he’s become a much sounder defender, playing stronger one-on-one defense in the low post and choosing when to and not to gamble on attempted steals. Having at least one steal in 23 straight games, Happ leads the Big Ten with 54 steals and is four away from the school record for steals by a freshman.
He’s anxious to try both of those improved skills on the 7-foot, 250-pound A.J. Hammons and the 7-2 282-pound Isaac Haas, who took advantage of him at times in December. Hammons did the bulk of the damage, finishing with 24 points and seven rebounds.
And like Wisconsin, both of those players have improved too since the first meeting, as Haas (26.8 points) and Hammons (24.7) are the conference’s top two scorers in points per 40 minutes.
“They’re big, so quickness is going to be big for me, either getting around (them) or beating them to the spot,” said Happ. “If that doesn’t happen it is going to be a long night.”