Former Rockridge High star flourishes in Wisconsin’s new offensive scheme
Former Rockridge High basketball star Ethan Happ has emerged as a key player on one of the NCAA's hottest basketball teams.
Following a 62-49 win at Minnesota on Wednesday night, the Wisconsin Badgers have won 11 of their last 12 games with four of the victories coming against ranked opponents. Now it looks as if they are a serious threat to go deep into the 2016 NCAA tournament. Wisconsin’s record stands at 12-5 in Big 10 play and 20-10 overall.
Happ, the six-foot-nine freshman forward, has started all 30 games for Wisconsin this season, averaging 27.7 minutes played. He leads the Big 10 in steals (1.8 per game), is fifth in rebounds (7.9) and recorded his ninth double-double of the season in the win over Minnesota.
Expectations were not the highest at the outset of the season. At the end of last year, Wisconsin lost five key players from a team that made Final Four runs in each of the past two seasons. Then, in a shocking Dec. 17 press conference, long-time head coach Bo Ryan abruptly announced his retirement. The team’s record was a lackluster 7-5 at the time, and it appeared as if Wisconsin might be headed into a rebuilding phase. Enter interim coach Greg Gard.
The new coach inherited a young and inexperienced squad with only two players that averaged more than eight minutes per game over the course of the 2014-15 campaign. Considering the fact that five teams in the conference have been ranked in the top 25 for most of the season, the outlook was grim for the Badgers. But Gard made several changes; most notably, he brought in the swing offense, and over the second half of the season, the Badgers have become world-beaters.
“Coach Gard implemented some new things when he came in -- the swing was one of them, and it has been instrumental in our success,” Happ recently told Rock Island Today. “When we come down the floor, we already know what we are going to do. We are not wasting any time looking around trying to figure out what play we are going to run.”
The strategy spreads players farther apart on the offensive side, creating more options to move the ball around, thus increasing scoring opportunities from both inside and outside. Happ, in particular, has thrived in the new system.
“When Coach Gard put in the the swing, he also put in a few individual steps for me to get the ball, which boosted my confidence -- that he wanted me to get some individual touches,” Happ said. “The swing spaces us out a lot more, so that when defenses double down on me in the post, I can kick it out. If they don’t double down on me, I have room to operate.”
Wisconsin has gone 14-5 since Gard assumed head coaching duties.
In high school, Happ was a guard, but a sudden growth spurt transformed him into a formidable post player. Nonetheless, commentators and coaches alike are amazed by the dazzling footwork he displays against bigger men in the post.
“That’s one of the things that I pride myself on, is being able to take my guy off the dribble from anywhere,” he said. “I think that’s why I’m where I’m at today, because of the transition from being a point guard and now going to the other side -- I don’t see the game as most big men do.”
But all of the attention he is getting has not made Happ forget his hometown of Milan.
“My community has been big to me growing up: everyone from my family to my best friends to those who just follow me in basketball,” he said. “The support they have given me is unreal, and sometimes it has motivated me to keep pushing on and to keep wanting to get better. At our Iowa game, I had 100 people from my hometown and from the Quad Cities. It was unbelievable to see that support from my community.”
Happ has declared a major in communications, but right now his goal is to play professionally. As for his chances of a potential NBA career, he is cautiously optimistic.
“I think it’s going to happen,” he said. “If you believe it enough and if you work toward it enough, it’s going to happen. I know I’m going to work toward it enough, and I believe in myself. I don’t know at what time, but I know that at some point in my life, I’m going to be able to make it.”
The way things look right now, it would be unwise to bet against him.