Madison, WI – Wisconsin center Ethan Happ is the definition of a one-level scorer who does nearly all of his work deep in the paint. That’s nothing opposing defenses do not know. But it’s also something opposing defenses can rarely stop, and that was the case on Monday night when Happ scored 20 points in leading the Badgers to a hard-earned 69-64 Big Ten victory over Rutgers at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin.
“Most of the game, they played me one-on-one with hard digs at me,” said Happ. “That’s something I enjoy playing against instead of having to face a hard double-team.” A 6-10 fifth-year senior, Happ was his usual efficient self making 10 of 17 shots. Happ may be a one-level scorer, but he has great range to his overall game and led the Badgers in rebounding, assists and blocked shots entering the game. He was his typical stat-stuffing self against Rutgers leading Wisconsin with four rebounds and three assists in a low-possession game. “Happ is a problem,” said Rutgers Coach Steve Pickiell. “He makes a lot of things happen for them. He took over when he had to.”
As the popularity of floor-stretching bigs increases in basketball, Happ’s game recalls a time when centers mostly played in the low and mid posts and scored with their backs to the basket. But while Happ lacks the face-up game and jump shot to step out onto the court, he compensates with ball-handling and passing abilities that most bigs can only wish were part of their skill sets. Happ likes to receive the ball in the mid-post area and go to work. With the strength to bully weaker defenders and the dribbling prowess to negotiate around slower defenders, Happ drives the ball to the rim and uses both hands to score. He was especially feeling his left hand against Rutgers and used it repeatedly with success. Because Happ utilizes different release points, shot blockers often find themselves swatting at air in attempting to block Happ’s shots at the rim.
Wisconsin entered the game leading the Big Ten in team three-point field goal shooting at 42 percent. With three and sometimes four teammates capable of knocking down shots from distance on the court with Happ, opposing coaches have a difficult decision to make to either guard Happ with one player or send a secondary defender at him with the hope of forcing him to pass. Pickiell elected to guard Happ with one defender all night. Doubling Happ does come with its own risks. With a high hoops IQ, vision to see the whole court and length to pass over shorter defenders, Happ can foil even the best planned defensive schemes. Happ found teammate Nate Reuvers with a skip pass out of a post-up at the 18:05 mark of the second half that Reuvers converted into a three-point shot to give the Badgers their first lead of the game at 35-33. It was a lead Wisconsin would never relinquish.
Even though Happ sparkled last season as a junior leading Wisconsin in scoring, rebounding and assists on his way to earning first team all-Big Ten honors, Wisconsin limped to losing overall and conference records and saw its streak of 20 straight NCAA tournament appearances snapped. Injuries hit the Badgers hard last year and played into their losing record. Guards D’Mitrik Trice and Koby King suffered right foot and left kneecap injuries, respectively, that ended their seasons in December. Guard Brad Davison played through the finish line, but he had to manage eight separations to his left shoulder and had surgery in March to repair the shoulder.
All three players are healthy this year and contributed to the Wisconsin victory. Trice is off to a torrid start. The 6-0 guard whose older brother–Travis–played at Michigan State, entered the game tied with Happ for eighth place in the Big Ten in scoring at 17.4 ppg and first in three-point field goal percentage at 58 percent. He started slowly against Rutgers scoring only four points in the first half. But as Wisconsin gained separation early in the second half and held off Rutgers in the game’s final stages, Trice was at his jump-shooting best. Shooting mostly off the bounce to his right in midrange and from distance, Trice finished with 14 points on six of nine shooting including making both of his shots from behind the arc. He ended the game with a gaudy 60 percent three-point shooting percentage on 30 makes of 50 attempts.
The Scarlet Knights outplayed Wisconsin in the first twenty minutes to build a ten-point lead with three minutes left in the half before taking a 31-26 lead into halftime. Sophomore guard Geo Baker converted on four of seven shots as he penetrated the Wisconsin defense to score in the paint and at the rim. Sophomore Peter Kiss, a transfer from Quinnipiac, knocked down three jump shots to contribute seven points. But Wisconsin charged out of intermission. The Badgers immediately ran a play for 6-5 wing Khalil Iverson who scored in the paint. Iverson then ran a play for himself on the ensuing Rutgers possession when he stole a handoff pass in the Rutgers frontcourt and beat defenders to the Wisconsin basket to score to cut the Scarlet Knights lead to one. “Khalil really ignited us and we were able to play more consistently in the second half,” said Wisconsin Coach Greg Gard. Happ said Iverson’s burst to start the second half was “huge. It’s even more crucial when we’re down for Khalil to come out and give us that spark right away. That kind of gave us the momentum to get this win.”
The win improved Wisconsin’s record to 8-1,2-0 in the Big Ten, and cemented the Badgers 12th place standing in this week’s AP poll and 16th place ranking in the USA Today poll heading into a December 8 game with Marquette in Milwaukee. “Obviously, happy for our guys to find a way when we weren’t at our best all the time,” said Gard of his team’s performance in a possession-by-possession, grind-it-out type of game. “It’s the Big Ten. It’s going to be rough, going to be competitive. It’s probably going to be one of the best leagues in the country, if not the best, in terms of depth. This is how it’s going to be.”
The game marked the appearances of sons of two former NBA guards who distinguished themselves with long professional playing careers. Freshman guard Ron Harper Jr. played 14 minutes off the Rutgers bench and scored five points. He’s the son of Ron Harper, the Miami of Ohio product who won multiple NBA championships as a member of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers and played in over 1,000 NBA games. Freshman guard Tai Strickland played short stretches in both halves for Wisconsin and did not score. Strickland is the son of Rod Strickland, a former DePaul star who also played in more than 1,000 NBA games and whose 7,987 career assists places him 12th on the all-time NBA assists list.
Rutgers saw its record fall to 5-3 and 0-2 in conference. Big Ten schedule makers did the Scarlet Knights no favors making them play traditional conference powers Michigan State and Wisconsin to open their conference slate of games. “This is a great league and this is a great venue,” said Pickiell. “But it’s a 40-minute game. With only a two-day prep for this game, it’s hard to re-invent the wheel. We have to play elite on both ends of the court in an environment like this (in order to get the win.)” The Scarlet Knights return to action on December 8 when they travel to New York to take on Fordham.
This article was written by Tom Osowski, a correspondent and scout for NetScouts Basketball. You can follow us on Facebook, or on twitter. We are looking for those interested in our basketball scout apprenticeship program. For information contact us and forward your resume.