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Ethan Happ’s rise to March stardom

The day was Wednesday, February 10th.

The Wisconsin Badgers were five games into a season-defining win streak and were welcoming Big Ten bottom-feeder Nebraska into the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Their redshirt-freshman center Ethan Happ was undoubtedly already a household name in basketball circles. He had poured in 18 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and willed his struggling teammates to an overtime win in Syracuse’s vaunted Carrier Dome. He had posted another mammoth double-double against a far more heralded rookie counterpart in Maryland’s Diamond Stone. He had forced in a layup in the last 12 seconds to knock off a Michigan State team lauded as one of the nation’s best. He had dominated future-lottery pick Thomas Bryant and Indiana with a career-high 25 points to hand the eventual Big Ten champions their first conference loss.

With a resumé like this, filled with big-time performances against big-time players and teams, most would assume it would have been hard for then-interim coach Greg Gard to ask for anymore from his 6’9” workhorse down low. However, during that seemingly innocuous mid-winter night, that assumption was proved entirely wrong.

Happ struggled mightily, going without a field goal on three attempts and pulling down an insignificant three rebounds. The Badgers won the game comfortably, but Coach Gard was anything but comfortable with the showing from his big guy.

“At home against Nebraska he really struggled,” recalled Gard after Thursday’s practice in Philadelphia. “I think he only scored two points. He was in foul trouble, it just wasn’t his night. Typically with freshmen you see a lot of peaks and valleys. You see a good night where they look like they’ve been there three or four years, and then you see [a night where] they just walked off of a high school gym and into the college game. Nebraska was one of those nights [for Ethan].”

Gard knew that the talent in Happ’s game was there, but knew that it would mean nothing going forward if he could not develop the consistency that he was lacking. Gard did not pull any punches in challenging his young star with the necessity of bringing it night  in and night out, against whatever opposition stood in the way. Both parties acknowledge that that performance, that challenge, and that night played a vital role in both Happ’s improvement, and the Badgers’ success as a whole.

“I really saw him turn a corner after [that game],” Gard revealed. “I think his consistency level has grown over the last month and a half [since Nebraska], he practices at a higher rate for longer periods of time, and he has really matured in those terms.”

“Yeah, I think it was [a turning point],” Happ agreed when he took the podium shortly after his coach on Thursday. “My mindset was the biggest thing that it changed. It wasn’t anything physical or skill-wise. I kind of just stopped getting down on myself for not performing well and I think that helped myself and the team get to where we are now.”

“When [Ethan] first got on campus, he took criticism pretty hard,” recalled teammate Bronson Koenig, speaking beside Happ. “He’s done a better job recently not getting so down on himself and has really mentally matured in that sense since [last year].”

Of course, last year for Happ was a unique but frustrating learning experience. Being redshirted and ineligible to play in official games, the only competition he got was day to day match ups with the best player in the country, teammate Frank Kaminsky. These matchups were not always as easy-going and friendly as you might think.

“Frank could get under a lot of people’s skin,” Gard admitted. “He could get under my skin, and he got under Ethan’s skin, but Ethan would give it right back. On the court, that usually [resulted] in physical play.”

Although the nature of their battles in practice may have often been contentious, Happ is quick to acknowledge the value of his experiences against Frank the Tank.

“I owe a lot of my game to Frank,” Happ said. “Whether it was him verbally telling me what to do or me just learning from the experience of playing against him. I’ve learned a lot of moves from him.”

“Having Frank to go against all of last year was something special,” he continued. “I think redshirting was the best decision for me [because] I think I wouldn’t have been able to play against him every day in practice if I hadn’t done that and would not have learned what I learned from him.”

With the skills that he honed under the tutelage of an all-time Wisconsin great and the maturity and consistency levels he has developed since that game in February, Happ has been the Badgers most valuable player on their latest, most unexpected run into the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. He got the team out of jail against Pittsburgh in round one with 15 of their 47 points on 6-of-8 shooting, and was the lynchpin for their offense in a second round upset of Xavier, depositing 18 points on just 10 shots.

In the Regional Semifinal against Notre Dame, he will face his toughest challenge yet in the form of the Irish’s senior center Zach Auguste. Happ seems well-versed about the threat that Auguste poses, and is aware of the different breed of big man that he belongs to.

“He’s a bulldog,” Happ said of his counterpart on Friday night. “Coach has talked about how you have to match his intensity and keep him in check.”

“He has really quick feet,” Happ noted about the difference between Auguste and the elite centers he has had success against. “I’ve been able to use [my quickness] to my advantage playing in the Big Ten, but now he’s got the same skill set so I will have to go to work against that.”

If Happ appears knowledgeable about the unique skill set that Auguste possesses, the same cannot be said the other way around, as Happ seems to be flying under the radar of the Notre Dame star.

“Yeah, I haven’t got to see too much from him,” Auguste admitted yesterday when questioned about his matchup with Happ. “I watched a little bit of their game [against Xavier], I’m just focused on playing within myself and on us as a team.”

Happ will certainly be hoping that Auguste knows a thing or two more about him by the final buzzer in Philadelphia friday night, and will be intent upon showcasing the qualities that he has acquired over his two years in Madison that have molded him into a star.

Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame tips off at 6:27 PM CT in Philadelphia, and Happ will be intent upon leading the Badgers to victory and a spot in the Elite Eight for the third season running.

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