It took 20 minutes for Ethan Happ to get going in games at Iowa and Michigan State last week.
That’s not a trend the center for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team wants to see continue as the Badgers try to snap a two-game losing streak.
The junior’s combined first-half numbers in the losses to the Hawkeyes and Spartans: 5 points on 2 of 14 shooting with only two free throw attempts, one of which he made.
During the second half of those games, Happ has looked more like the guy who was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season. The combined post-halftime totals against the Spartans and Hawkeyes: 39 points on 13 of 19 shooting from the floor and 13 of 14 shooting from the line.
“The second half, I see that we’re down and I try and do more,” Happ said. “And that’s what I need to do right out of the start is just trying to be more effective, and it doesn’t even have to be scoring-wise.”
The Badgers (10-12, 3-6 Big Ten), whose five losses in their past six games have all come on the road, return Monday night to play Nebraska (16-8, 7-4) at the Kohl Center.
Happ scored a team-high 19 points during a 63-59 loss to the Cornhuskers earlier this month, but that game was also a tale of two halves for the UW standout.
He went 2 of 5 and had four points in the first half in Lincoln before going 7 of 10 and scoring 15 points after halftime.
“Sometimes if he has success early, it fuels the rest of his game,” UW assistant coach Howard Moore said. “Sometimes when he has some setbacks, it kind of makes him a little timid and he loses a little bit of confidence and concentration.”
There are plenty of obstacles standing in the way of Happ getting off to good starts, starting with the fact that he’s No. 1 with a bullet on opponents’ scouting reports. He’s met with constant double teams and there’s a feeling-out process each game as he sees exactly where the extra player is coming from.
“I think being the person that’s circled on scouting reports, people are going to try to get you out of a comfort zone,” Moore said. “They’re going to try to take away some of the things that you do well. I think sometimes it’s an adjustment. I think early in the first half, he’s in positions where he needs to read a little bit more, slow a little bit. That’s one of the messages we’ve always tried to get across to him is that sometimes he tries to go so hard and so fast that he’s not reading the defense and reading the situations before they occur.”
Showing poise and patience are two things UW coach Greg Gard and his staff preach to Happ. They showed Happ clips of how well he used pump fakes and didn’t rush around the rim during the second half of a 76-61 loss at Michigan State on Friday night. Clips from the first half, when Happ was bothered by the length of 6-foot-11 freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., weren’t as pretty.
“I think slow down and take your time through it, make sure you’re being solid with your feet,” Gard said. “Add a pump fake, not only to get the defender off balance but to get yourself positioned where you can make a play towards the rim.”
Happ sometimes is his own worst enemy because he tries to do too much to help the team. That’s also understandable because he’s surrounded by inexperience and is trying to do everything to help guide the Badgers through rough times.
Not only was Happ the only returning starter on a team that had to replace Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter, the Badgers’ depth took a major hit in December when freshman wing Kobe King sustained a season-ending knee injury and sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice had to undergo foot surgery.
Trice returned to practice briefly earlier this month but his foot hasn’t responded as hoped. It appears unlikely he’ll return this season.
“I’ve been part of such good teams and teams that took their lumps and then found their way,” Happ said. “There’s still definitely time for that, but I always had other guys — Nigel or Bronson and Vitto and Showy — guys that I could turn to and could rely on them almost.”
Now, the Badgers are relying heavily on Happ. It’s taken a toll.
“It’s tough,” said Happ, who leads the Badgers with 17.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. “It’s taxing mentally and physically trying to come down and try to make a play.”