Ethan Happ has seen quite a bit at Wisconsin.
From redshirting during the Badgers’ national championship final run to watching as head coach Greg Gard was handed the reins and missing the tournament last season, Happ has seen the best and worst of Wisconsin basketball.
And he’s better for it.
“He’s probably had the widest scope of experiences of any guy we’ve ever had here in terms of what he’s been a part of,” Gard said.
On Thursday, Happ will experience his last game at the Kohl Center, as the fifth-year senior will look to edge Wisconsin (12-6 Big Ten, 20-9 overall) closer to a Big Ten tournament double-bye with a win against Iowa (10-8, 21-8).
As usual, Happ will be counted on to lead the team with his usual flurry of points, assists and rebounds, but it wasn’t always that way.
Four years ago, Happ emerged from a redshirt season of battling Frank Kaminsky in practice as a third fiddle to Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, more of a role-player than a star.
“Since I’ve grown from that role-player spot from my freshman year, that kind of gets forgotten about, that I started out being a real hustle guy, just trying to get all of the little gritty things done,” Happ said.
He still does those little things — diving for loose balls, setting screens, crashing the offensive glass — but his legacy has far surpassed a player with merely good work ethic.
Entering Thursday’s game, Happ is Wisconsin’s all-time leader in rebounds, is second in blocks and third in assists and points.
Quite simply, he is one of the greatest players to ever come through the Wisconsin basketball program.
Happ has evolved plenty. He’s no longer a “skinny, scrawny kid,” or a “mouse” in the locker room, as Gard called him.
Now, he’s a craftier, stronger player around the rim who is also an emotional leader of the team.
“He was extremely introverted early in his career,” Gard said. “And that’s taken him a while to come out of his shell and be comfortable in a group, and be comfortable speaking his mind in the locker room.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Happ was itching to play as a redshirt, watching a special team consisting of Kaminsky and Sam Dekker make it all the way to the national championship.
Now, Happ isn’t just getting on the floor. He’s the best player on a top-25 team, and one that Big Ten opponents focus their game plan around.
“I was jealous, man, I wanted to be a part of it so bad,” Happ said of the 2014-’15 team’s run to the national championship. “But it made me want to work that much more, to see the success that they had, and how much time all of those guys put in, and the team unity that they had out on the court, five guys that were really connected.”
Happ is the fulcrum of the Badgers’ current group — also a close bunch — but it speaks to his selflessness that he wants to be remembered for his work ethic and mentions his postgame “Shoe Project” as one of his biggest prides.
Happ will have one last chance to make Kohl Center memories against Iowa, one more chance to dazzle with a spinning layup or a coast-to-coast drive that no 6-foot-1-inch player should be able to do.
That is what’s expected of Happ, one of the all-time Badgers, at this stage in his career.
Just don’t say you expected it when he arrived in Madison.
“I don’t know if anybody would’ve envisioned this,” Gard said. “I think if anybody says that, they’re not telling the truth.”