Badgers men’s basketball: Frontcourt help for Ethan Happ tops goals for next season

March 27, 2017 GMT

NEW YORK — The last thing Ethan Happ wanted to do as he sat with his head down, bodies packed around him in the tight confines of a Madison Square Garden locker room filled with tears, was look ahead to the 2017-18 season.

The sophomore center was still trying to sort out how the University of Wisconsin’s season had just ended with an 84-83 overtime loss to Florida in an NCAA tournament East region final that ended early Saturday morning. He was trying to come to grips with the fact he’d played his final game with a sensational senior class that had helped take the program to new heights.

“I’m not looking too much towards the future right now,” Happ said, “just reflecting on everything these seniors gave to us and everything they’ve done for me personally.”

At some point, Happ and the other returnees will begin the process of getting ready for next season. When Greg Gard addressed his team after what he called a “gut-wrenching” loss to the Gators, the UW coach thanked the seniors for everything they’d done for the program. Next, Gard said he “talked to the younger guys about going forward.”

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Make no mistake, the Badgers are entering their most important offseason in at least four years as they try to keep the momentum going inside a program that will be chasing its 20th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

The senior class of Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown accounted for 55.9 percent of the team’s minutes this season. Hayes, Koenig and Showalter logged the most minutes on the team for the Badgers (27-10).

Hayes finished his career with 150 games played, the most in program history. He played 4,446 minutes, second only to Josh Gasser. The senior forward finished his career No. 3 all-time in points (1,857), No. 6 in rebounds (802) and No. 7 in assists (319) at UW.

Koenig is the program’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers. He finished his career with 4,075 minutes played, No. 4 on the program’s all-time list.

Showalter was another in a long line of blue-collar players who have been the heart and soul of a successful program. He also was a defensive ace.

It wasn’t the final season Brown hoped to have, but his ability to knock down perimeter shots and stretch defenses was a key to UW ending up back in the Sweet 16 the past two seasons after losing the core from an NCAA tournament runner-up in 2015.

“You’d almost want to call it a complete overhaul,” UW redshirt freshman guard Brevin Pritzl said. “You’ve got to think, you’re losing 30 minutes a game essentially out of four guys and that’s a lot to replace.”

Time to grow

Assuming there are no other departures besides the seniors — and that’s no guarantee in this transfer-heavy age of college basketball — the Badgers will have to replace 59.7 percent of their scoring from this season.

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Happ blossomed as a sophomore, averaging 14.0 points a game. He led UW in rebounding (9.0), assists (2.8), steals (1.8) and blocks (1.2) while earning first-team All-Big Ten honors.

The next step for Happ during the offseason is to become a threat away from the rim. Only two of the 381 field goals he’s made in his career have come from outside the paint, and he made only 50.0 percent of his free throw attempts this season.

Still, Happ’s free throw shooting improved in the postseason and he’s shown during workouts he can knock down shots from the perimeter. Now he just needs to build more confidence so he can have that threat at his disposal when games begin again in November.

The biggest question heading into next season is finding someone to complement Happ in the frontcourt.

Sophomore swingman Khalil Iverson will have the opportunity at an expanded role and could potentially be in line to start at small forward. The coaching staff is excited about the potential they see in Aleem Ford, a 6-foot-8 freshman forward who redshirted this season.

“His skill set has improved,” UW assistant coach Howard Moore said earlier this season. “You can tell in his confidence. What he’s doing with Eric (Helland) in the weight room is really starting to show. You see the results there and then as assistants, whenever we do a scout, we always make sure he’s the best player on the perimeter or that hybrid forward that gives people problems. …

“There are times when coach Gard has made a comment like, ‘Too bad you’re redshirting because you’d get some opportunities.’ It’s good to have that where he’s getting some looks and he’s getting some confidence.”

The biggest question mark for the Badgers heading into next season is the power forward spot. Ford would offer a hybrid option that could test defenses, but will he be able to defend the No. 4 position on opposing teams?

Other options include Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas, who both were inconsistent while splitting time as UW’s first big man off the bench as sophomores. Illikainen only played three minutes in the NCAA tournament, while Thomas didn’t appear in seven of the final eight games of the season.

Sophomore Andy Van Vliet didn’t play at all last season after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA and was on the floor for only 48 minutes this season. While the combination of his size and skill makes Van Vliet an intriguing prospect, the 7-footer from Belgium has had a difficult time adapting to UW’s defensive system and the physical play required in the Big Ten.

It remains to be seen where he fits in UW’s plans or if he’ll even return for a third season in the United States.

Incoming freshman Nathan Reuvers, a skilled 6-9 forward from Minnesota, could be in the mix for playing time immediately. Reuvers’ biggest priority after he steps foot on campus will be adding weight and muscle to his lean frame.

If ever the Badgers were to tap into the graduate-transfer market — they have a scholarship available — this would be the offseason to do it. Former UW coach Bo Ryan made it clear during his tenure he was strongly against that practice, but Gard told the State Journal last March he was more open to the possibility of adding a player for one season.

“It depends on the situation,” Gard said at the time. “It would have to be the right fit, because you’re bringing someone in for such a short period of time that if it’s not the right fit, it upsets your apple cart, so to speak. This program has built a lot on chemistry and culture.”

If Gard and Co. were to go down the graduate-transfer road, they’d likely be looking for a big man adept at stretching defenses with perimeter shooting, clearing space for Happ to work his magic in the paint.

If the Badgers don’t bring in anybody new, it’ll be up to the returning players to make big jumps in the offseason.

“We’re losing a big chunk, a lot of minutes out of four guys,” Illikainen said. “We’re all going to do our best to push each other to get better. Just one guy getting better is not going to make a difference. We’ve got a lot of minutes to replace, so it’s a big offseason for us.”

Timely trip

UW’s backcourt, meanwhile, will be mostly young and inexperienced next season.

The only scholarship upperclassman returning is Jordan Hill, who was in the same recruiting class as Hayes, Koenig and Brown. Hill said last month his plan is to return for a fifth season with the Badgers provided he gets accepted into graduate school.

D’Mitrik Trice contributed early and often as a freshman and will have a chance to take over for Koenig as the starting point guard. Even though he’ll only be a sophomore, Trice also will have to step into a leadership role alongside Happ and perhaps Hill.

“I’ve kind of always been in that situation as leader, whether I was on the football field or on the court,” said Trice, a standout quarterback in high school. “I think that, especially with these guys coming back next year really trusting me, I’m definitely putting myself in that position to be a team leader.”

Pritzl’s minutes increased after the calendar flipped to 2017 and he could slide into Showalter’s spot at shooting guard provided his defense improves. Finding scoring options will be crucial for the Badgers next season and Pritzl should help in that area, though he shot 23.8 percent (5-for-21) from 3-point range as a redshirt freshman.

Two incoming freshmen also will be looking to step into key roles immediately. La Crosse Central’s Kobe King, who was named Mr. Basketball in Wisconsin, may give Gard the option of using a three-guard lineup at times if he can guard big guards and smaller forwards at this level. Brad Davison, another Minnesota product, can play both guard spots and has impressed the UW coaching staff with his intelligence and toughness.

The Badgers will be taking an offseason trip to Australia and New Zealand and the timing couldn’t be better. Not only will it give the team 10 extra practices in the summer, the five exhibition games the Badgers will play in those countries should help speed up the growth process and give the coaching staff a better idea of who they can count on to contribute.

When UW took a trip to Canada in the summer of 2013, players and coaches alike raved about how the journey helped a young team bond while gaining experience on the court. That team, which included first-year starters Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, made it to the Final Four the following spring.

“Coach Gard likes to talk about synergy,” Pritzl said. “We’re going to have to create that quickly in the summer so we can figure out how we’re all going to mesh and make sure we play at the highest ability that we can.”