IOWA CITY — The Iowa basketball team has met all the challenges so far this season.
It has gone up against quick guards, slashing wing players and shot-swatting 7-footers and has handled them all in getting off to a 6-0 start.
But tonight’s earliest ever Big Ten opener at Carver-Hawkeye Arena brings something entirely different.
Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ is "unique" and "non-traditional," according to the Hawkeyes. He also might just be the most productive player in the entire country right now.
"Really unique challenges," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said as he prepared the 14th–ranked Hawkeyes for a 7 p.m. visit from Happ and 22nd-ranked Wisconsin tonight.
"He's one of the best ballhandling bigs that you'll see. Playing with great confidence right now. He's a senior. He's an All-American. Tremendous versatility going right and left. You've seen him bringing in a lot more off the rebound, put it on the deck, take it coast to coast. But he pretty much can score from pretty much anywhere."
That’s not entirely true. The 6-foot-10 Happ has not made a 3-point field goal this season — he has only two attempts — and he’s still struggling to make free throws, hitting just 50 percent.
But it’s hard to find any other sort of weakness in the former Rockridge High School star. He is fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (18.0), first in rebounding (12.3), third in assists (5.3) and fourth in blocked shots (2.0).
He has had a double-double in every game and has won or shared the Big Ten player of the week award every week.
"I think what makes Ethan Happ really good is he has kind of a non-traditional game," Iowa center Ryan Kriener said. "He kind of brings it up and then he’s in the post, then he kind of backs you down with two dribbles and then he spins and he spins again, and then it’s up and under and a reverse layup. He just plays a little different. He has a uniqueness to his game."
Iowa senior Nicholas Baer, who scored 14 of the Hawkeyes’ last 16 points in a Tuesday victory over Pittsburgh, has known Happ longer than anyone on the Iowa roster. He played with him on the Quad-City Elite AAU team for a year and saw this coming way back then.
"Nothing that I’ve seen of him at Wisconsin has surprised me," Baer said. "Obviously, he’s got great handles and can really push the ball and has a multitude of fakes and can be a really effective scorer down low. It comes as no surprise to me the success he’s had so far."
So what is the secret to controlling Happ?
Baer said he doesn’t think anyone in the country has quite figured that out.
"He’s so creative and really demands the ball and can make plays for others," Baer said. "He’s not just a scorer. He makes plays for other people. Wisconsin’s done a nice job of being able to spread the floor around him with people who can make shots. We’re still working on it, but obviously when you have a player of the year candidate coming in here, he’s tough to guard. It’s going to be a collective effort, and we’re going to have to put it all together."
McCaffery’s general philosophy is not to double-team opposing players, but he admitted he could make an exception in Happ’s case.
"He's a guy who would have your attention in terms of ‘Do we double?’" McCaffery said. "We're not a team that typically doubles a lot. … We have doubled him in the past, but we typically don't do it all the time."
Aside from including one of the nation’s best players and being a matchup between ranked teams, tonight’s game also is the Big Ten opener, which brings an added jolt of intensity.
"There’s just a greater sense of pride in Big Ten games," Baer said. "It’s not hard to get up for a game against Wisconsin or Michigan State."
That’s especially true for Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon, who had two older brothers play for Wisconsin but was not recruited by the Badgers. He beat Wisconsin with a shot at the buzzer two years ago and would love to do something like that again.
"It puts a little extra chip on my shoulder," he admitted. "I wouldn’t say this game means more to me, but I guess it does just because of my family history."