Even though he waved to the crowd and unleashed his trademark big grin, Vitto Brown hadn’t had much to smile about with his game entering his senior day earlier this month.
Shooting 21.9 percent his previous 10 games, including 20.5 percent from 3-point range, Brown’s funk has coincided with Wisconsin’s offense sputtering for over a month and losing five of six to drop them far out of first place in the Big Ten.
Everybody knew Brown was in a rut, so when sophomore Ethan Happ fed him for an open look from 3-point range early against Minnesota, Brown got a familiar voice of confidence.
“Ethan kicked it out to me and said ‘Come on V,’” Brown recalled. “I had to knock it down at that point. I couldn’t let him down.”
In good times and in bad, Brown and Happ have had each other to rely on and confide in. A friendship that began when the two started living together three years ago and has translated on to the court, the duo hope to extend their tandem another 40 minutes when eighth-seed Wisconsin (26-9) takes on Villanova (32-3) – the tournament’s overall number one seed – tomorrow at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
Happ was the lone scholarship player in Wisconsin’s 2014 recruiting class and was joining a program that has a tight-knit group of upperclassmen and a five-man freshman class the year before that had grown incredibly close. It was a situation that easily could have cast Happ out on his own island, but never materialized thanks to Brown reaching out from the start.
“He took me under his wing when I was a freshman and he was a sophomore, and it hasn’t stopped,” Happ said. “On the court we have good chemistry, him dumping it into me in the post and me kicking it out to him for threes. We’ve been helping each other on the court but off the court as roommates, you’ve got to help each other there, too.”
Similar personality traits drew the duo together, not to mention the fact that they play the same position and one’s strength is a weakness for the other. Brown – a 6-8, 235-pound forward – has developed confidence (despite his recent struggles) with attempting mid-range and 3-point shots.
Happ - 6-10, 232-pound redshirt sophomore - earned second-team All-American status and was a first-team all-conference pick after being the nation's only player to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals during conference play.
The two have spent the better part of two years trying to pass on their strengths to the other. Happ has yet to attempt a perimeter shot in his career but works at it constantly in practice, usually with Brown. He’s given fans a taste, having slipped out to attempt a handful of mid-range jumpers this season.
Brown still plays on the perimeter but has shown a willingness to attack the glass and go for rebounds. The senior had a four-game stretch in late January collecting at least six rebounds per game, had another six in the senior-day win over Minnesota and collected eight (four offensive) in the Big Ten tournament semifinals win over Northwestern.
“We’re both gym rats and work together all the time,” Happ said. “I would show him what I learned in the past year on what to do in the post and slow yourself down to keep your balance. He would show me some shooting drills to get a more consistent shot. It’s been good for both of us.”
Both players also share the fact they were lightly recruited when committing to Wisconsin. Committing over Kansas State and Nebraska, Brown has outplayed his rating with 118 games played, 69 starts (48 straight) and 26 career double-digit point performances. A year ago he averaged 9.7 points and 5.0 rebounds in only 25.4 minutes per game, enjoyed the third-largest scoring increase in the Big Ten after averaging just 1.8 ppg as a sophomore.
He may be undervalued by the fan base, especially with the scorers and other playmakers on the roster, but Happ and his teammates know better.
“He might get lost to other people looking on but he’s never lost to us,” Happ said. “When Vitto’s playing well, that really helps our team. He does a lot of things well for us, and having him on the perimeter when he can catch and shoot whenever guys try to double off him is a really good weapon for us. Last season you saw how effective he was.”
Happ picked Wisconsin over an offer from UW-Milwaukee. Becoming only the second UW sophomore to earn first-team all-conference status, Happ’s rapid rise is credited in part to his redshirt season in 2014-15. On the scout team for a squad that played for the national championship, Happ spent every day in practice going against Frank Kaminsky – the consensus national player of the year – in the low post.
“I don’t think you can get any better contest or testing ground than going against the national player of the year every day in practice,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said. “That in itself was very helpful for Ethan. I think it tested his pride a little bit. He really took him under his wing.”
According to Gard, Kaminsky made sure to work and talk Happ through situations in order to get a clearer picture moving forward in his career. Most importantly he didn’t take it easy on him.
“He went at him every day,” Gard said. “He didn’t let up. I think that was probably the best thing for Ethan. Frank was relentless on him. He didn’t ease up … He kept testing Ethan every day.”
The tests this season have been more mental than physical. Returning 99 percent of its minutes and scoring from its Sweet 16 team a year ago, Wisconsin’s high goals of winning the Big Ten regular season fell flat on a late season slide and a tournament title vanish against a hot-shooting Michigan.
In a way, under-seeded and an underdog going into Saturday afternoon is a fitting spot for two unlikely friends who have always been each other’s biggest supporter.
“We’ve been there each other with all our ups and all of our downs,” Brown said. “We probably know each other the best on the team, so we’ve talked at the crib and all that. We just never gave up on each other, even when we’ve been playing like trash and garbage. That’s just a testament in this game that we’re still looking for each other all the time and we still have confidence in one each other.”