MADISON, Wis. — Freshman Ethan Happ realizes minutes will be hard to come by on Wisconsin’s basketball team this season. With seven regular rotation players returning off a Final Four squad and the top nine seemingly set, Happ is trying to be realistic about his possible contributions.
Still, he can’t help but ask this week: Is it worth hanging on as a fringe rotation player for the opportunity to be a part of perhaps the most hyped season of Wisconsin basketball in program history?
"I’ve been talking to a lot of people about it," Happ said. "People that I trust, people that could maybe tell me one way or the other on it. But the big thing is they keep telling me that it’s my decision. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It’s a good decision either way. You’re going to play a lot more in your fifth year than you would this year. But how many times do you get to try and help a team go as far in the tournament as this team could, even if it’s just in a small role?"
Happ, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward from Milan, Ill., must make a decision this week. No. 3 Wisconsin opens the regular season against Northern Kentucky at 8 p.m. Friday in the Kohl Center. And if Happ plays, he cannot take a redshirt season this year.
When practices began in October, Happ was locked in a battle with sophomore forward Vitto Brown for the final frontcourt spot in Wisconsin’s rotation.
Happ has shown flashes of his capabilities in stretches, demonstrating a willingness to rebound and impressive moves to free himself for shots at the rim. During Wisconsin’s 77-40 exhibition victory against Division II UW-Parkside last week, Happ recorded a three-point play off a putback rebound just 17 seconds after checking into the game. He finished with five points and five rebounds on 2 of 7 field-goal shooting in 12 minutes.
Brown scored four points with two rebounds on 2-of-4 shooting in 14 minutes during the exhibition. But he has the inside track on the final frontcourt spot and has practiced with the first-team offense this week, while Happ is on the scout team.
Happ noted he has spoken to the coaching staff seeking insight on his decision. He hoped the coaches would be able to offer a prediction on how many minutes he might play.
"They can’t really give you a number because I thought they would," he said. "But now I’m learning that they can’t just because of how other people could play, how I could be playing in a month. It all depends. It’s all up in the air, so they can’t really give me a number."
Happ was a two-time Associated Press first-team all-state selection as a junior and senior at Rockridge High School. He averaged 33 points and 15 rebounds as a senior and led his team to a 28-1 record. This summer, he was named most valuable player of the Under-18 Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Germany, averaging 19.1 points and 10.7 rebounds in seven games. He is Wisconsin’s only scholarship freshman.
Happ said he had leaned on the advice of his father, as well as fifth-year seniors Duje Dukan and Josh Gasser. Dukan took a redshirt season in 2012-13 after coming down with mono. Gasser used his redshirt the same season after tearing his ACL.
"There’s definitely pros and cons to it," Gasser said of redshirting. "I’ve been in college five years. I think four years flies way too fast. I’m glad I got this fifth, extra year. Not the circumstances that happened, but you know what I mean. But also, they could be part of something special this year if they don’t redshirt. So it’s kind of what do you want to do? Your fifth year compared to your first year? Weighing the pros and cons and all that.
"It’s a tough decision. It’s definitely almost life changing. But I think our guys are putting good thought to it."
Happ said he hoped to make a decision by Friday’s tipoff but said there also was a remote possibility he would wait beyond that game, assuming he did not play.
"I would like to get it out of the way," he said. "But if the coaches are giving me word and the players are giving me confidence to not do that and just sit on the bench and wait it out, I might do that. But we’ll see how it goes."
Hill, Schlundt to redshirt: Wisconsin announced Wednesday that sophomore guard Jordan Hill and freshman guard T.J. Schlundt will use the 2014-15 season as a redshirt year.
Hill appeared in 11 games as a freshman and totaled seven points in 25 minutes. He had been in the mix to be Wisconsin’s fourth guard in the playing rotation this season, but that spot now belongs to redshirt sophomore guard Zak Showalter.
"I feel like the best decision for my future is to gain this extra year," Hill said in a news release. "As a competitor, it’s hard for me to come to this decision, but I think it’s the mature move. The best thing I can do now is to go at my teammates as hard as possible in practice and use this year to get better in every phase of the game."
Schlundt, a walk-on from Oconomowoc, averaged 17.5 points per game in one year at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy (Delafield). Prior to attending the school, Schlundt was a three-year varsity starter at Oconomowoc High School, where he finished as the third-leading scorer in school history after totaling 1,053 career points.
"Obviously this year we have a lot of really talented players and I feel like I need to get bigger, faster and stronger for the years to come," Schlundt said. "I’m really excited about the future and spending the year learning as much as I can from my coaches and teammates."
Three sign with Badgers: Wisconsin also announced Wednesday that high school seniors Alex Illikainen, Brevin Pritzl and Charlie Thomas all signed national letters of intent to attend Wisconsin and play basketball for the Badgers next season.
Illikainen, a 6-9, 225-pound forward, will spend his senior year playing for Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H. He was a two-time all-state selection and averaged 26.5 points and 15.2 rebounds as a junior at Grand Rapids (Minn.) High School. Badgers coach Bo Ryan described him as someone who brought a "lunch pail and hard hat mentality" in a news release announcing the signings.
Pritzl, a 6-3, 185-pound guard, averaged 20.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game as a junior at De Pere (Wis.) High School and earned first-team all-state honors. Rivals.com ranks him as the No. 78 player in the country, while Scout.com has him at No. 48.
"Brevin is one of the best shooters in the country in his class," Ryan said. "It’s been neat to watch one of the nation’s best high school shooters grow up right here in Wisconsin."
Thomas, meanwhile, a 6-8, 245-pound forward from Clarksville, Md., averaged 20.2 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game last season at River Hill High School. He holds the school record for career points (1,137), rebounds (612) and blocks (120).
"We think we’ve found a diamond in the rough with Charlie," Ryan said. "Being a year young for his actual grade, we believe he’s got a tremendous future as he continues to grow and develop his game."