He is unquestionably Wisconsin’s best player, an All-American last season as a sophomore and a candidate for national player of the year this season.
His experience is unrivaled on the team. With 72 college starts, he has 70 more than all his teammates combined.
Knowing for months he will be asked to lead an unseasoned team that has no seniors in the regular rotation, he sought the counsel of former UW All-American Frank Kaminsky, who led the Badgers to the Final Four in 2014 and ’15.
“I think that the leadership aspect is one that people are looking at me more,” junior forward Ethan Happ acknowledged. “What am I doing today in practice? If I am working as hard as I can and being the hardest worker on the floor, then people follow in your footsteps.
“(Frank) has mentioned to me a couple times that I need to be the hardest worker and have people follow my lead.”
Happ will have to lead UW in 2017-’18 but five games overseas in August and UW’s recent exhibition game against Northern Iowa revealed he probably won’t have to carry a team that should feature four first-year starters and three freshmen in Greg Gard’s regular rotation.
“I think it is going to be a fun group to watch,” assistant coach Howard Moore said. “I think there will be so many guys that will be factors. I think in past couple years you always knew who the guys were to make the plays.
“But this year there is so much more—for the lack of a better term—variety.”
UW, unranked in both top 25 preseason polls, opens the season at 6 p.m. Friday against visiting South Carolina State.
Happ, who last season led UW in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks in Big Ten play, no doubt will be the focal point of opponents early this season.
Yet UW could have the shooters and scorers capable of making teams pay if they focus too much on Happ.
Five players led UW in scoring during its five-game overseas tour in August.
Happ wasn’t one of the five.
Eight players hit at least 1 three-pointer in UW’s 69-38 exhibition victory over Northern Iowa.
“If teams are going to try to focus their defense on me,” Happ said, “it is going to be tough stop if we have those guys scoring. And not only scoring, but making plays for other people.”
Sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl, sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice, freshmen guards Kobe King and Brad Davison, redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford, junior guard Khalil Iverson and junior forward Andy Van Vliet appear capable of stretching defenses to the three-point line.
“I think so,” Gard said when asked if he feels UW can surround Happ with shooters. “I think we’ve got some pretty skilled guys at a variety of positions.
“ I think they’re getting more and more comfortable playing on the floor with each other in terms of where people are, what people’s strengths are, what their weaknesses are.
“That’ll be something that’ll continue to grow. Hopefully, offensively we evolve and continue to grow as the year goes on. We’re nowhere near where we can be.”
Someone will have to step forward and provide minutes at power forward but with several interchangeable pieces, Gard can use a smaller lineup that could be terrific defensively.
“They’ve bought into the importance of it,” Gard said. “We’ve definitely stressed it enough and it has been the foundation of this program for a long time. It will continue to be.”
Yet will UW, which has to replace Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter, continue two impressive streaks this season?
UW has finished in the top four of the Big Ten in each of the last 16 seasons and has qualified for the NCAA tournament in 19 consecutive seasons.
“Nothing changes,” said Trice, who started two games last season and played in all 37. “Our goals are always the same and we know the expectations in the locker room will always be greater than on the outside.
“This core group of guys and the guys we’ve added to this team are going to help us head in the right direction.”