Behind Enemy Lines: Wisconsin center Ethan Happ
For the first time in two decades, the Wisconsin basketball program is rebuilding. After two pairs of Final Four and Sweet Sixteen appearances in the past four years, the Badgers have struggled from the get-go this season.
A drop of some degree was anticipated for Wisconsin. Gone is the steady and effective backcourt duo of Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter. So is Nigel Hayes, the multi-dimensional forward and former Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year. The trio was responsible for over 60 percent of the Badgers’ minutes last season.
Still, the level to which Wisconsin dropped this year has been surprising.
With an offense ranked 312th nationally, the Badgers have won just three conference games and sit at 10-15 overall — on track for the program’s worst mark since 1998. And it’s only gotten worse as the season has drawn on. Wisconsin has lost four straight games and has fallen in seven of their last eight.
But the Badgers are still dangerous, mainly because of Ethan Happ. The redshirt junior center is averaging over 17 points and eight rebounds per game — good for sixth-best in the Big Ten. He has also earned 10 double-doubles and expanded his repertoire to include jump shots.
He’ll be a challenging matchup for No. 20 Michigan, which heads to Wisconsin for a 1 p.m. tip Sunday. The Daily sat down with Happ at Big Ten Media Day last October to discuss the Badgers’ transition, his jump shot and emerging stardom.
The Michigan Daily: You’ve played under both Bo Ryan and now Greg Gard during your time at Wisconsin. How do you compare their respective coaching styles?
Ethan Happ: They’re very similar because coach Ryan obviously was coach Gard’s mentor for how many years? I think coach Gard tries not to be as temperative as coach Ryan was. I feel like (Ryan) lost it a little quicker. When you messed up, all hell broke loose. So I think coach Gard tries to make it a staple of him, to stay calm even through tough moments.
Both ways are very effective. Coach Ryan was very successful with what he did. Coach Gard has been successful with what he’s done. I think as long as you’re consistent so your players know what to expect, that’s big.
TMD: Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes were two long-time players that become the faces of Wisconsin basketball. What have you learned in the early stages of stepping into their former roles?
EH: The biggest thing is action more than vocals. Anybody can say the right things to be a leader. But I think really what’s the true testament is what you do on the court: If you’re the hardest worker in a drill. If you know all the plays to a tee and the other spots on the play — things like that. A freshman or sophomore looks up to you and says, ‘Hey, what do I do on this play’ or ‘Oh, he’s going that hard in that drill? I better do the same thing.’
TMD: Much has been made about your development of a jump shot. How do you balance that with your presence in the post?
EH: The media makes a big deal about me shooting the ball, but I’ll still be in the paint. That is where I help the team the most, and that’s where I’m most effective is down low. If I can draw double-teams in, that’s what we want to do. But at the same time, if I can take upon and pull defenses out, that’s what I’m going to do as well.
TMD: How’s your jump shot itself changed since last season?
EH: It’s definitely taken steps forward. I don’t expect to come into the season shooting 60 percent on jump shots, but I’ll set a goal, hit that and keep going from there.
TMD: What do you make of the reduced expectations that your team has this season with the losses of Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes (and) Zak Showalter? Those lower expectations are something you’ve never really had at Wisconsin, right?
EH: I’m not happy about losing the talent, but I’m happy that the expectations on us are drawn back. Last year, we were supposed to win the Big Ten, and we got everybody’s best game. You never get an easy game in the Big Ten, but hopefully we have a game like, ‘Oh Wisconsin? We’re fine.’ Hopefully, we get those games a couple times.
TMD: What about the big expectations put on yourself? How are you handling those?
EH: You just can’t take it too seriously. I’m going to have bad games. I’m going to miss shots. There will be times where I turn the ball over, and that’s just part of playing the game. That’s what happens when I have the ball this much.