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Ethan Happ's early-season performances show tantalizing potential

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While he is still struggling with freshman mistakes, forward Ethan Happ has all the tools to develop into a dominant interior presence for the Wisconsin Badgers.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Ethan Happ's performance on Wednesday night on the road against No. 14 Syracuse flicked a switch for me. Watching him fight for every rebound on both sides of the court, it was as if Happ played as a dominating senior and had reached the pinnacle of Bo Ryan's stellar development system. He had 10 defensive rebounds and five boards on the offensive end. Remember this is a 6-9, 230-pound power forward in his first year playing at the college level. Against a top 15 team in the country.

Happ consistently beat Syracuse's patented 2-3 defensive zone. He found his sweet spot on the left side of the basket on the baseline, where he would get in perfect position to receive the pass, and then routinely made deft moves to get into the lane.

There are two offensive plays I wanted to share that made me awestruck by the pure instincts and skill that Happ demonstrated last night.

One happened at the 16:27 mark of the second half. Nigel Hayes had clanked his three-point attempt off the rim and Happ beat two Syracuse players to the ball to grab the rebound right under the basket. Instead of putting up the shot and trying to draw a foul, like many Badgers had attempted to all game, Ethan gracefully found Nigel Hayes for a wide open jump shot and the Badgers extended their lead to 31-27.

The second play I would like to point out was pretty obvious, one that everyone who was watching the game will remember. Wisconsin had just come off of two momentous plays by Hayes, an and-one on offense and a huge swat on the defensive end. The Badgers drained the shot clock all the way down to the wire after some superb zone defensive by Syracuse and Tyler Lydon had a huge block on Happ to keep 'Cuse within three. After the refs called it Wisconsin basketball and Ryan lost his play clock challenge, UW had four seconds to score with an inbound under the basket. Showalter faked throws to Vitto Brown and Bronson Koenig out the perimeter and settled with a magnificent pass to a cutting Happ who immediately slammed the ball home for a dunk.

That play was absolutely game-changing for Wisconsin, extending the lead to five, and also making it a two possession ball game, a devastating reality for all Syracuse players and fans, including my brother in the upper levels of the student section. Happ not only did well on the offensive side of the ball, he also played some exquisite defense. He had three blocks and two steals, portraying himself as an absolute menace under the basket.

Sure, he had five turnovers. He also missed countless, relatively easy layups and received several traveling calls. But he is only a freshman, and he has years in Ryan's system to develop his jump shot.

In the end, Happ's performance in the Syracuse game, and in the first eight games overall, has shown how far he has already come as a member of the Cardinal and White, and how far he still has to go to become a complete player.

But if there is one thing for which I am certain, Ethan Happ is going to be a special basketball player. The grittiness and competitiveness he has already shown has been incredible. Once he adds some discipline and works out the kinks in his game, I can see Happ as an All-Big Ten and All-American caliber player for the Badgers.

Buckle up guys, and get ready for the next big Wisconsin star.