Ford: Wisconsin big man a matchup nightmare

NCAA Wisconsin Virginia Tech Basketball
Virginia Tech forward Zach LeDay (right) drives to the basket against Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ during the second half of Thursday's first-round NCAA Tournament game in Buffalo, New York.

BUFFALO - When Ethan Happ began playing basketball, he was a point guard, and he was fairly certain he would remain a point guard. Every day in the driveway, he did ball-handling drills for an hour, twice as much with the left hand as the right hand. He could change direction, he could go behind his back, he could crossover. He was tough to defend.

Not much has changed for Happ since, except he isn't a 5-foot-9 eighth-grade guard any longer but a 6-10 college sophomore who leads Wisconsin into an NCAA second-round matchup with Villanova on Saturday afternoon.

"I thought I was going to be a point guard my whole life, and then I sprouted up, and now I'm here," Happ said after practice at the KeyBank Center on Friday. "There's been some ups and downs in the process, but I think it helped me more than it hurt me."

Being 6-10 is rarely a drawback in the game of basketball, and Happ has used it to his advantage - combining a large low-post presence with the ability to scoot around defenders with ease. It is a unique skill set, and Happ will present a unique challenge for the Wildcats, who will have to match the grind-it-out Badgers stop for stop on defense.

"He's got the best hands of any player of his size we've played against and also the best feet," Jay Wright said. "So, individually, if you took the best feet or the best hands, he's got them. And [when] you put them together in the same guy, right, that's a really tough matchup."

During the Big Ten regular season, Happ led the Badgers in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, the only player in the nation to do so in conference play. Wisconsin isn't flashy offensively, and even though the Badgers were second in the Big Ten during the regular season and finished second in the league tournament, they were given an 8 seed that led to the roadblock presented by the defending national champion. Conference rivals Minnesota and Maryland, against whom Wisconsin was 3-0, were each seeded higher (and were each bounced in their first games).

To make a comparison, the Badgers can do more than they look capable of, and the same goes for Happ, who carries just 230 pounds on his slight frame. He played three sports very well through high school, including baseball, where he was a pitcher just like first cousin J.A. Happ, who got a World Series ring from the Phillies for his contribution to the 2008 season.

"I'm thinking of getting back to it after this whole basketball thing is done. I think I might bring out the glove and test where it's at again," Happ said. "I'd say J.A. definitely had better velocity, and he's a lefty, so he hides the ball really well. There's really not a lot of similarities on the diamond between J.A. and me."

On the other hand, Ethan could probably dunk over J.A., who is only 6-5. None of that family rivalry - and there was a lot of it growing up in northern Illinois - and none of the jokes will carry over to Saturday, when Villanova has the serious task of stopping Happ and the Badgers. Happ heard Wright's scouting report and returned the kind words.

"I like his suit game," Happ said. "For him to give me the compliment about hands and feet, I'm not obligated, but I do enjoy his suits as well."

Well, who doesn't? To prevent Wright from getting warm under his perfectly starched spread collar on Saturday, Villanova will probably use a significant amount of double-team attention when he receives the ball in the post.

"He's very comfortable changing directions, even as he posts up, which is unique," Villanova associate head coach Baker Dunleavy said. "It's a unique cover, not something you practice against a lot. Creighton had great success [against him] early in the year, and they doubled him, big on big, every time. Then they went into league play, and a lot of teams did that, too. But when you're dealing with a really good post player, there's not one thing you can just press a button and do."

According to Wisconsin coach Greg Gard, Happ developed as the season has progressed in dealing with defensive schemes, and the Badgers have gotten better at capitalizing on the attention he attracts.

"He struggled with it early," Gard said. "But he's obviously gotten better, and the guys around him have gotten better at taking advantage of what's there."

Wisconsin is much more than just the little guard who grew into a very big guard. The Badgers can make three-point shots, take care of the ball, and their calling card is still a clingy defense. It is also a team that can get out of offensive rhythm and disappear, as Wisconsin did during a recent stretch when it lost five of six and averaged just 64 points in the losses. Villanova has a knack of making teams disappear, and maybe history is still on their side.

"People wrote us off, and now we've won a couple games, and we'll see where we go," Happ said.

Where the ball will go is obvious. It will go to the post. What takes place after that will determine the game.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports