Any Big Ten team that thought Ethan Happ had run out of ways to score around the bucket may be in for an unwelcome surprise.
While the Wisconsin big man figures to be the object of attention for opposing defenses this year, Happ has been working on more moves in the post.
“There are a few more that I’ve been adding on, but I can’t really divulge those,” Happ joked. “Hopefully you’ll see them soon.”
This is a season of transition for the Badgers. Happ is the lone returning starter following the departure of the decorated class of Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter.
Starting almost every game the previous two seasons with Happ, the quartet had been through nearly every conceivable scenario in Madison, including a coaching change. Their careers ended with a loss to Florida in overtime in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in March.
Now Happ assumes more responsibility on a much younger team. The rotation could eventually include three promising freshmen.
Already one of the top all-around big men in Big Ten, Happ wants to get better defensively. Happ can block shots and poke away passes into the post. He’s a deft ball-handler in transition.
His biggest weakness is well-known: He is not a good outside shooter.
“I feel confident,” Happ said when asked about working on his shot. “But I guess it’s just going to be something where (you) have to wait and see what happens in the game.”
Coach Greg Gard appreciates how Happ has tried to improve his game.
“And he understands where his bread is buttered and what he’s the best at,” Gard said. “Has he worked on his perimeter game? Yes. Has he tried to improve that part? Yes. Is it essential for him to shoot from the perimeter for us to have success? No.”
It’s up to former reserves primed for bigger roles, like juniors Khalil Iverson and Brevin Pritzl, and sophomore D’Mitrik Trice, to help fill in around Happ. The freshmen class of guards Kobe King and Brad Davison along with forward Nate Reuvers, have opportunities to be contributors early in their careers.
Some notes and other things to watch with Wisconsin:
Trice takes over at point guard for Koenig following a promising freshman year last season. Trice was a quick and sturdy presence off the bench while shooting 41 percent from 3-point range. A quarterback in high school, the polished Trice has already displayed the potential to fill the leadership void left by Koenig’s departure.
Koenig, Brown and Showalter were consistent threats from 3 over their careers. New shooters must step up to help open up room inside for Happ. Pritzl showed during the team’s summer exhibition tour of New Zealand and Australia that he’s ready to take more responsibility after averaging 11.2 points and shooting 66 percent from behind the arc (14 of 21).
Going down under
The summer trip was crucial for a squad that will have so many players in so many different roles. Extra practices allowed the team to build chemistry. Gard likes his team’s conditioning and the players’ grasp on fundamentals.
“Building off the summer, it’s probably been an abnormal fall by how much time we were able to have together,” Gard said. “It’s definitely put us ahead.”
Reuvers, King and Davison could form the Badgers’ next core. King and Davison in particular could be best poised to contribute early this season. The 6-foot-4 King has athleticism, while Davison could take on Showalter’s role as a grinder who plays with reckless abandon.
While the Badgers may lack experience, they could be a little more athletic than recent teams. Iverson, whose leaping ability makes him a threat in the paint, figures to join the starting lineup. Trice and King should be a quick combination when paired in the backcourt, while Happ is one of the toughest big-man matchups in the game.
“We’re not going to open it up to an AAU game. But I think there will be opportunistic situations that allow us to try to get some easy baskets,” assistant coach Howard Moore said. “Hopefully it will be off our defense for the most part, and continue to be a staunch defensive team.”
Defense first at Wisconsin. The faces may change but the philosophy doesn’t.