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Wisconsin basketball: Forward Ethan Happ improving early for Wisconsin

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Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ already looks much improved since his debut two weeks ago. Wisconsin expects him to continue growing against Prairie View A&M on Wednesday night.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Around seven o'clock on Wednesday night, standing ready for the opening tip inside the Kohl Center's center circle, you will find a 19-year-old named Ethan. Ethan Happ.

He wears No. 22 for the Wisconsin Badgers, a jersey number that means a lot around the program. It was worn by iconic, tireless defenders Mike Kelley and Michael Flowers. Over the past few games, Happ has flipped his unspectacular start upside down, indicating he intends to put his own stamp on the number as well.

See Happ run.

When watching Wisconsin play, you notice there's something different about the way Happ runs. I can't pinpoint it, but it's unorthodox. Maybe it is how he moves his hands when he runs or how upright his posture looks. Whatever it is, just like Dennis Rodman's high-knee running style, Happ's motion is unique.

If you didn't notice any of that during the first two Badger games this year, I don't blame you. Happ played only 37 minutes and when he was on the floor, odds are he was fouling someone. Early foul trouble limited Happ's productivity and raised fears about who would become Wisconsin's reliable third option. Happ looked very little like the promising young forward fans had heard reports about over the past 14 months. The Badgers (3-2) languished to a 1-1 start against Western Illinois and Siena while Bo Ryan toyed with a number of different lineup combinations.

"I don't see myself as just a garbage bucket man." -Ethan Happ

Fortunately, Happ took a big step forward last Tuesday against North Dakota, turning in a career-high 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting while adding seven rebounds and two assists. His coast-to-coast game was on point, too.

"I don't see myself as just a garbage bucket man," Happ said following the game. "I'm going to do whatever I can to help the team win. I don't care if I score two points or if I score 17 points. It really doesn't matter to me what I contribute as long as our team wins."

See Happ rebound.

From carrying Rockridge (Ill.) High School in the IHSA playoffs to his MVP turn for Team USA at the Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Germany[1] the summer before arriving in Madison, Happ has always excelled come tournament time. Looks like you can add the 2K Classic to the list.

Happ sprang for consecutive double-doubles in New York City and was named to the 2K Classic All-Tournament team. It was the first time since Mike Wilkinson in 2001 that a Badger freshman posted back-to-back double-doubles. Happ steadily increased his minutes and tightened his grip as UW's man in the middle. Though Wisconsin merely broke even to take third place, Happ averaged 12 points and 10.5 boards to finish up quite a productive week (which apparently wasn't quite enough for Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors).

The best part about Happ's turnaround is that he is making good on his reputation as a tenacious rebounder. His overall rebounding profile is as good as we've seen from a Badger big man since Brian Butch.

It will be difficult for Happ to maintain his 23.2 defensive rebounding percentage over a full season, but that's a mark you typically only see from seasoned senior posts, like Butch, Joe Krabbenhoft, Jon Leuer and Frank Kaminsky. On the other end, Happ's 13.6 offensive rebounding percentage is well above any other individual in the Bo Ryan era who has played at least 20 percent of available minutes -- and Happ is currently playing 60 percent of the possible minutes.

He's just a redshirt freshman, so let's call that a good omen.

Happ still does most of his work in the paint. In fact, Hoop-Math.com shows that 93 percent of Happ's shots come at the rim, a spot where he's made more field goals than Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Vitto Brown combined. That is why it's imperative for Happ to stay on the court and out of foul trouble.

Because it fulfills a need on the team, Happ's interior focus on offense is fine with his head coach.

"That's what he has to do for us because he's not a prolific outside shooter," Ryan said. "He knows how to get things done to help the team, so that's what he has to do. Stick with what you do well, and he does that well. Ten feet and in, 15 feet and in, he's pretty tough."

* * *

While Wednesday's opponent, Prairie View A&M, doesn't figure to pose much of a threat to the Badgers, the Panthers (0-4) have a pair of experienced players Happ's size to push him inside. Primarily 6-8, 240-pound junior college transfer Admassu Williams, Prairie View's leading scorer (13.7) and rebounder (8.0). Like Happ, Williams is a throwback post player who will do his damage in the lane.

None of the other Panthers are much of a threat from outside the lane either. Prairie View is shooting 22.6 percent on three-pointers, a welcome sight to Wisconsin. Junior guard Tevin Bellinger also averages 13.7 points per game for head coach Byron Rimm II, but he's hit only 5-of-23 from long distance.

The Badgers conquering VCU at Madison Square Garden was a great segue into this matchup with Prairie View, as the Panthers' greatest strength is generating steals. Junior Jaryn Johnson is the one to keep an eye on. Wisconsin has not been terrible with the ball thus far -- other than the first half versus VCU -- but UW hasn't been it's otherwordly self in the control department either. Pretty much everyone on the team already has a few passes or ballhandling miscues they would like to have back, Happ included. They all get another chance to improve Wednesday night at the Kohl Center.