Ethan Happ committed to Wisconsin in June of 2012. He'll finally arrive on campus in a little more than month.
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - When Ethan Happ arrives on the University of Wisconsin campus this June it will have been almost two years since he gave his verbal commitment to Bo Ryan. It was nearly 16 months between that commitment and when he got to sign his letter of intent last November. In an age where 15- and 16-year old kids change their mind quicker and more often than Mother Nature during a Wisconsin spring, the 6-foot-8 Happ never wavered.
“People were asking me when I signed if that felt good that I could be (officially) committed,” Happ said this week. “But my verbal commitment was just as strong as when I signed on signing day.”
During the Badgers run to the Final Four this year a lot of media outlets dug deep into Wisconsin’s program to see what made it so successful. What they found was an operation that has gone essentially unchanged since Ryan took over in 2001. It thrives on getting high character players that have a love for the game and a passion for getting better. Those traits seem to be engrained in Happ, who played his high school ball at Rockridge (Taylor Ridge, Ill.).
“To be honest, I guess, just work ethic and hustle,” Happ said of what his best attributes are. “There’s a lot of players that have a lot of talent. A lot more talent than I have, but I don’t know if there’s many players that can say they outwork me. I get up in the morning to go do a workout before school and then after school I do the same. I guess that kind of transitions to the floor. Fifty-fifty balls, just because I’m a big guy I’ve never left that to the guards. Anything I can do to help the team, I do it.”
Save for a few exceptions, including Sam Dekker and Brian Butch, UW rarely gets the players considered by the scouting services as the best in the country. And yet, they continue to win at a pace that few in the Big Ten can match. Ryan owns the best winning percentage in conference history (.703) and took care of what most considered the lone missing element on his resume by making it to the final weekend of the season. And UW has done it by taking players that weren’t heavily recruited and molding them to fit their specific role on the team. It’s that process that caught Happ’s eye during this recruitment.
“From a basketball standpoint, the way they develop their players,” Happ said of what makes UW’s coaching staff special. “They don’t get a lot of, as people say, five-star recruits, so they get them into their system and they develop their game individually to the point where it helps the team. That’s why they have so much success. I’m excited for that.”
He’s excited because he saw what a 3-star recruit from Illinois – like he is -- was able to accomplish this past season. Frank Kaminsky was an unheralded 6-foot-10 forward from a school in Wisconsin’s neighbor to the south. All he did this past year was earn first-team All-Big Ten honors and was named the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament. Kaminsky has mentioned numerous times that his doubters pushed him to get better. While Happ uses the naysayers as motivation, he only takes it so far.
“It does and it doesn’t,” Happ said. “Since I’ve kind of got on the map with AAU and things like that, people have been telling me I’m not good enough for this, I’m not good enough for that. You do kind of take that into your workouts a little bit to make you push a little bit harder. Do an extra set, do an extra rep but at the same time they don’t play the game. They are people talking about the game that they’re not playing, so you kind of have to zone them out a little bit at times to where you just focus on your game and what your coaches are telling you and just try and hone your craft.”
Happ calls Milan, Illinois home – a small village just outside of the Quad Cities – and it will be an adjustment moving away from friends and family. But he got a little taste of what it would be like after traveling to Germany to play for Team USA in the 2014 Albert Schweitzer Tournament. And it went well. He averaged 19.1 points and 10.7 rebounds while leading the Americans to the tournament final where they lost to Italy 86-73. Still, his efforts earned him Most Valuable Player honors.
“It was unbelievable,” Happ said. “Aside from the basketball aspects of it, I’ve never been out of the country, so to go over to Europe and see so many different things and meet so many different people. I really enjoyed that part. With the basketball aspect of it, losing the championship game, obviously that stings a little bit, but as a whole, it was a good week.”
The run to the tournament title game was unexpected for the U.S. team. They hadn’t won an ATS title since 1996 but with Happ and several other soon-to-be college players like Mike Williams (Rutgers), Shavar Newkirk (St. Joseph’s) and Scott Lindsey (Northwestern) they reached the finals.
“I’ll definitely take some life experiences from meeting new people,” Happ said of the seven-game tournament. “How to deal with adversity, definitely. There were a lot of things that went wrong on that trip, not just for me, but as a team as a whole. Other than that, basketball, there’s a bunch of tips that the coaching staff has given me to take with me to college.”
Many of those tips came on the defensive end and Happ knows that part of his game needs to improve. His ability to grasp the intricacies of Ryan’s defensive principles could determine whether he redshirts or gets playing time during his first season in Madison.
“After watching them for two years now, if a freshmen makes a mistake, he’s going to get yanked out of there,” Happ admitted. “Whether it’s on defense or it’s on offense. It’ll be tough to get good minutes but it’s something I’m going to have to work on.”
With him being more than month out from being on campus Happ isn’t quite sure how the coaching staff plans to use him this fall or what kind of role they foresee for him.
“When I committed they told me to keep working on my game, obviously, and then after the first couple weeks of practice, I’m planning on having a sit down conversation with them to find out how many minutes they think I’ll play that season. If it’s a good number, I guess, then I most likely won’t redshirt. But they lost one senior, so it’ll be tough to get minutes on a Final Four team losing one senior. If I don’t get the minutes I think I’d like to receive, then I’ll probably redshirt.”
That decision will be up to Happ. While not redshirting was a no-brainer for Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig this past season – they each averaged over 15.5 minutes per game – Jordan Hill and Vitto Brown made the decision not to and they played in 11 and 14 games, respectively. Ryan leaves the choice up to the player and Happ knows he won’t have a lot of time to impress.
“Yeah, coach is going to play the best five guys on the floor,” he said. “At that point you just set a goal to be one of the five best on the floor. I’m just going to keep working on my game, my all around game, and see where I’m at when the season starts.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin