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Ethan Happ should win National Player of the Year

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Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love His Free-Throw Percentage

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Wisconsin
Mr. Steal Your Girl And Your Basketball
Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Ethan Happ is a known quantity here in the frigid upper Midwest.

He keeps opposing Big Ten coaches scratching their heads looking for ways to slow him down and he keeps Wisconsin fans on their feet game after magnificent game with his passing, rebounding, and, uh, shooting (near the basket).

Happ is finally getting some national love too now that the Badgers are back in the top 25, from people like CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander (who basically stole my whole idea for this column, because, you know, writing about how good a really good player is was clearly only my idea).

Norlander notes that Happ isn’t getting as much respect as he should be this season. Players like Duke’s Zion Williamson and Murray State’s Ja Morant get a lot of NBA Draft hype while Willamson and Tennessee’s Grant Williams seem to be the front-runners for the James Naismith Award. However, here is what Norlander says at the end of his section on Happ’s statistical output:

It’s amounting to a potential First Team All-American season. Maybe more. The most overused line in college basketball the past three months is that there’s no one like Zion Williamson. That’s true, but the same can be said for Happ -- and that’s been the case since well before this season began.

That’s a pretty cool thing for a national writer to say about Happ!

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

If you look at KenPom’s Player of the Year standings today you’ll see that Happ is in second, behind Williamson by .001 points (2.054 to 2.053). The third player, Williams, is a whopping .264 points (1.789) behind Happ. According to advanced stats, there is a pretty clear-cut top two in the player of the year race and it should be a doozy of a final third of the season to decide the winner. For what it’s worth, KenPom also has Happ as the favorite to win Big Ten conference player of the year, but I’m fairly certain we’ve all just assumed that would be the case, although pesky Carsen Edwards might still have a say in this matter.

Speaking of national writers, Andy Katz wrote his list of college basketball’s top players just after the new year, and while their doesn’t seem to be any method to the order he puts the players in ... Happ is listed first. Our friend Norlander posted his rankings for player of the year a mere five days ago and had Happ eighth (!) behind Michigan State’s Cassius Winston and Marquette’s diminutive Markus Howard. Judging by Wednesday’s column, it would appear that Norlander has abandoned the dark side and seen the glorious light that is Happ’s passing ability out of the double team.

It should also be noted that Happ was receiving some preseason player of the year hype, but it was minimal. Sports Illustrated had him listed under “Tier 3: Don’t Overlook These Guys,” which seems like a backhanded compliment to me. SI’s preseason pick, UNC’s Luke Maye, isn’t even the best player on his team! Maybe SI shouldn’t have overlooked Coby White.

Now is the point in this blog post where I list off the amazing stats that Happ has accumulated this year and where they rank both in conference and nationally! Prepare yourselves!

All stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com:

  • 10th in the Big Ten in minutes played
  • First in field goals made; 10th nationally
  • Third in field goals attempted
  • Six in field-goal percentage
  • First in two-point field goals made AND attempted; second in BOTH nationally
  • 14th in offensive rebounds
  • First in defensive rebounds; seventh nationally
  • Third in total rebounds
  • Third in assists
  • 11th in blocks
  • Third (tied) in points
  • First (tied) in PER (player efficiency rating)
  • Ninth in effective field-goal percentage
  • Fourth in total-rebound percentage
  • Second in assist percentage; 10th nationally
  • 12th in block percentage
  • Second in usage
  • Fifth in offensive win shares, second in defensive win shares (5th nationally), second in total win shares
  • First nationally in triple-doubles
  • 18.5 points per game, 10.3 rebounds per game, 5.1 assists per game, 1.2 blocks per game, 0.9 steals per game

Happ, it should be noted, is 0-for-5 from distance this year. Being mad about that, however, is like being mad at your super cute, cuddly, good boy of a dog for not being able to do math. Happ is also shooting 47.1 percent from the free-throw line on the year and a ghastly 34.2 percent during conference play. Being mad about that is ... fine. I’m sure he’s madder than you are.

Here is a fun table that UWBadgers.com provided in its most recent game notes. Happ is basically guaranteed a spot on the All-America first team, thus making him one of the five best players in the country:

NCAA Players to Average 19 PPG, 10 RPG (Major Conf. Since 2007)

Player Name School PPG RPG APG All-American
Player Name School PPG RPG APG All-American
Marvin Bagley Duke (2018) 21 11.1 1.5 1st
Deandre Ayton Arizona (2018) 20.1 11.6 1.6 1st
Ben Simmons LSU (2016) 19.2 11.8 4.8 1st
Kevin Jones West Virginia (2012) 19.9 10.9 1.2 2nd
Jamine Peterson Providence (2010) 19.6 10.2 1.2 none
Luke Harangody Notre Dame (2009) 23.3 11.8 2.1 2nd
Blake Griffin* Oklahoma (2009) 22.7 14.4 2.3 1st
Michael Beasley Kansas State (2008) 26.2 12.4 1.2 1st
Tyler Hansbrough* UNC (2008) 22.6 10.2 0.9 1st
Luke Harangody Notre Dame (2008) 20.4 10.6 1.7 2nd
Kevin Durant* Texas (2007) 25.8 11.1 1.3 1st
Ethan Happ Wisconsin (2019) 18.9 10.4 5.2 ???

The asterisk next to a player means that he won the Naismith Award that year. The bold number is the highest in each category. Also, Blake Griffin was a MONSTER at Oklahoma in 2009.

You may not know this about me as a writer, but I do very little research before I sit down to start writing any of the posts I make here. It’s kinda my thing. That being said, I am quite nervous to do a head-to-head comparison of Happ and Williamson because I’m worried that I might find out Williamson is the better candidate for player of the year. But, because I love you, dear reader, I will push my fears aside and plow forward with the statistical analysis.

HAPP! ZION! IT’S NEXT ON MONDAY NIGHT RAW! Wait. No.

Tale of the Tape: Happ vs. Zion

Statistical Category Ethan Happ Zion Williamson
Statistical Category Ethan Happ Zion Williamson
Points per game 18.5 22*
Rebounds per game 10.3* 9.2
Assists per game 5.1* 2.4
Steals per game 0.9 2*
Blocks per game 1.2 2*
Turnovers per game 2.9 2.3*
Field Goal % 56.1 68.1*
eFG% 56.1 70.3*
True Shooting % 55.4 70.4*
Free Throw % 47.1 67.2*
Usage % 33.8* 28.3
PER 30.9 42.4*
Box Plus/Minus 14.2 21.2*
Win Shares 4.2 5.3*

Obviously, the asterisk denotes who the winner is of the category. Of the 14 categories I deemed to be important, Happ wins three and Williamson wins 11. That ... doesn’t look so hot for Happ. BUT! I think that it is necessary to adjust for teammate talent and obviously Williamson is working with a cadre of talented five-star, NBA-ready players while Happ has a good, solid college team with which to work. NO OFFENSE, BRAD DAVISON! Williamson also supplies Twitter with a nightly highlight where it looks like he might injure his head on the top of the backboard with a dunk or block. That definitely helps the Zion Hype Machine.

/r/collegebasketball has been very diligent in following ESPN’s #ZionBoner.

ESPN helps too. This was during an Auburn-NC State game. Neither team has Zion Williamson on it, in case you had forgotten. Happ has 34.9k followers on Instagram, in case you were wondering.

Happ’s usage percentage is also higher than Williamson’s, meaning the Badgers rely on Happ to produce more than Duke does Williamson. Also, if Happ continues to drag Wisconsin up the rankings and the Badgers end up somewhere in the range of 10th to 15th before the NCAA tournament, you have to give Happ bonus points. Duke had the best recruiting class in NCAA history and was a national title favorite. Wisconsin signed Rod Strickland’s son and was hoping to finish in the upper half of the Big Ten. You tell me what’s more impressive!

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Duke
Look at how high he jumped!
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

I think that Zion Williamson will be a better professional basketball player than Ethan Happ. I know that is a scorching-hot take, so please handle with care. However, this year, in college, I think that Happ is the better player (who just happened to play against a harder schedule too) and deserves to win the national player of the year award. Let’s hope that Happ collects a couple more big wins in conference play along the way to seal the deal.