Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ must decide this offseason whether to return for his senior season.

Wisconsin mailbag: Ethan Happ’s future, transfer talk, how Badgers win Big Ten tourney

Jesse Temple

Have Wisconsin football, basketball or recruiting questions? We’ve got answers. Join us every Wednesday for the Land of 10 Wisconsin mailbag to talk all things Badgers. This week, we discuss whether Ethan Happ stays another year, where things stand with basketball recruits DJ Carton and Nobal Days, the secondary ahead of spring practice, which players could transfer, and what Wisconsin must do to win the Big Ten Tournament.

Question 1

Answer: The question about whether All-America forward Ethan Happ will stay for his senior season has gained steam in recent months. The reason? If he stays, the Badgers have a chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament. If he leaves, we’re likely looking at yet another rebuilding season that won’t thrill the fan base. That is how much Happ means to the team. After all, he leads Wisconsin this season in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. That hasn’t happened in the Big Ten since 1996.

Happ is an interesting individual who is extremely difficult to read, so it is hard to know exactly what he might be thinking. This has been a frustrating season for the team, and Happ hasn’t received a ton of help. He has been forced to endure double-teams virtually every game, and that isn’t likely to change next season.

But what complicates Happ’s decision — at least in my mind — is that he isn’t some slam-dunk first-round NBA draft pick such as Sam Dekker was when he left after his junior season in 2015. Most mock drafts list Happ as a second-round selection, which means he would not receive a guaranteed contract. Would Happ be willing to go that route and potentially play in the G-League, when he could have continued his development at Wisconsin as a senior?

I also wonder how much leaving a legacy at Wisconsin means to Happ. As it stands, Happ ranks No. 10 in school history in career points, No. 2 in career rebounds, No. 15 in career assists, No. 4 in career steals and No. 6 in career blocks. If he returns for his senior season, Happ likely would become only the third Badgers player to score 2,000 career points, alongside Alando Tucker and Michael Finley.

He would blow past Claude Gregory’s career rebounds mark of 904, which has stood since 1981. He would have a chance to crack the top 3 in all-time assists, behind Tracy Webster and Jordan Taylor — pure point guards. Happ also would finish second in career steals behind Mike Kelley and have a chance to surpass Frank Kaminsky for the career blocks record.

In short, Happ would go down as one of the all-time greats in the history of Wisconsin basketball. If that matters to him in the slightest, it makes sense for him to come back.

In terms of point guard Tai Strickland’s recruitment, I think it is going to be tough for the Badgers to land him. Wisconsin was smart to offer him a scholarship before a lot of other schools became involved, but Strickland looks like a player who is about to blow up at the end of his senior season. He received a Rutgers offer after Wisconsin came in. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon watched him Thursday, when he scored a game-high 24 points in a playoff game.

Strickland told me last week that he definitely is interested in taking a visit to Wisconsin. But he isn’t thinking about his future until his team wraps up the playoffs. And if his team makes a deep run, more schools could come calling. Wisconsin will explore the transfer market, but coaches aren’t done looking at late-blooming high school prospects.

Question 2

Answer: Wisconsin already has commitments from two 4-star tackles in the 2019 class: Logan Brown and Joe Tippmann. Given that only two tackles can play on the line at the same time, it is reasonable to believe Wisconsin could shuffle some pieces around if the Badgers have three high-level players who must be on the field.

Offensive line coach Joe Rudolph has talked before about the importance of finding the five best linemen to maximize Wisconsin’s offensive play. Michael Deiter has played center, guard and tackle. Beau Benzschawel started six games at right tackle in 2015 before finding a home at right guard. There are bound to be more tackles capable of moving to guard.

Bryce Benhart is 6-foot-9 and 285 pounds. Last week I talked to Brian Vossen — his coach at Lakeville North High in Minnesota. Vossen said he could see Benhart playing in college at 340 or 350 pounds. I also asked if Wisconsin having two tackles committed could impact Benhart’s college choice, and Vossen made an excellent point.

“I think it’s obvious that every year if you go play college football, especially at a good program, there’s going to be a bunch of linemen that come in every year that you have to compete with,” Vossen told me. “At that level, and especially as big as Wisconsin linemen are and the style of football they play, who knows? Tackles become guards. Guards become centers. People end up moving all over the place. At the end of the day, it’s, ‘Where do you need me to play so I can get on the field?’

“At 6-9, I can’t picture him playing guard just because it would look so odd. But his balance and footwork is good enough that he can do it. He does it some for us.”

Question 3

Answer: The dream scenario for Wisconsin’s basketball program right now is to pick up commitments from point guard DJ Carton and forward Nobal Days in the 2019 recruiting class. If I had to guess as of today, I would say the Badgers are in better position with Days.

Carton is extremely high on Wisconsin, but schools are coming after him fast and furious and he has said he intends on waiting until the next academic year to make his decision. If that is the case, then expect Carton to garner even more attention on the AAU circuit this summer, which makes it tougher for Wisconsin to land him.

Carton, whom the 247Sports composite ranks as the No. 4 point guard in the country, already has 13 known scholarship offers. He told The Des Moines Register earlier in February that seven schools had stood out to him so far: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Marquette and Wisconsin. All those schools have offered him except Indiana, which he visited at the end of January.

Wisconsin continues to pursue a point guard in the 2018 class, and if the Badgers find one I wonder how that might impact Carton’s decision. First, Wisconsin extended an offer to point guard Xavier Pinson, but he picked Missouri. Now the Badgers have offered Strickland.

As for Days, he also is earning more interest from schools. Stanford and Kansas State visited him in December. Days, the No. 1 player in Wisconsin for 2019, has 10 scholarship offers and surely will collect more. Wisconsin desperately will need front-court help in the 2019 class, and the coaching staff has made Days a priority. Greg Gard recently visited Racine to watch Days. Carton and forward Zeke Nnaji also are top priorities. But the longer these players wait, the greater chance that more schools become involved.

Question 4

Answer: Shareef O’Neal, the son of Shaquille O’Neal, de-committed from Arizona amid the FBI probe that is taking place there and then quickly committed to UCLA. He is a 4-star forward who ranks as the No. 9 power forward in the country for the 2018 class. The only way Wisconsin would have had a chance with a player of that caliber is if the Badgers had recruited him from the start and built relationships with him before other programs. Wisconsin can sell playing time to anybody, but that player has to be legitimately interested in the Badgers.

O’Neal committed to Arizona in April before de-committing on Saturday. He wasted little time in picking UCLA on Tuesday.

Question 5

Answer: It is tough to tell when high school players will make up their mind, so I don’t have a definitive time frame on the next commitment. But Wisconsin will look to build on the momentum of having so many prospects on campus last weekend. Seven of the eight committed players in the 2019 class were on campus, and dozens more players were there, as well.

Wisconsin’s 2019 commitments have come in faster than anyone could have anticipated. But March and April will be important as more out-of-state prospects visit on their spring breaks. The next few months should yield a handful of other commitments, and it will be interesting to see how good this 2019 class becomes.

Question 6

Answer: The NBA early-entry deadline is April 22, or 60 days before the June 21 draft. It makes complete sense for Happ to test the NBA waters by submitting his information to the NBA draft advisory committee for feedback on his stock.

If Andy Van Vliet returns next season, maybe we will see more of him. As it stands, the Badgers don’t have an incoming recruit who likely will contribute immediately. Van Vliet provides obvious scoring punch and is one of the best 3-point shooters on the team. He scored 14 points and made 4 3-pointers against Northwestern’s zone defense last week. But he would need to really focus on shoring up his deficiencies, particularly when it comes to defense and physicality.

Don’t expect to see Wisconsin in the NIT. Penn State, Indiana and Maryland each have winning records and are in better position to receive a spot in the NIT. And if Nebraska doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament, the Cornhuskers are an NIT lock.

Question 7

Answer: I released a projected two-deep for Wisconsin’s defense in early January, and my starters at cornerback were Dontye Carriere-Williams and Madison Cone. My backups were Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams, although Cone’s spot as a starter isn’t solidified. At safety, I pegged D’Cota Dixon and Patrick Johnson as starters, with Eric Burrell, Scott Nelson and Seth Currens as backups. 

Carriere-Williams was the Badgers’ third cornerback last season and played well when other teams tested him downfield. He tallied 30 tackles with 6 pass breakups and 1 interception. Cone played in nine games and made 1 tackle. But he did play at the end of the Orange Bowl and recorded a pass breakup. Hicks took a redshirt season in 2017, while Williams took his in 2016 and played in one game last season. But players earned praise from defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.

Dixon is the emotional leader of the secondary, and he will have to be at his best to guide a young group this season. Dixon finished fourth on the team with 55 tackles despite not playing in two games. Johnson played early in the season before sustaining a right arm injury and missing the remainder of the year. He likely will take over for Natrell Jamerson, who had a strong senior season. Burrell and Currens each appeared in all 14 games for the Badgers. Nelson took his redshirt season, but he was added to the travel roster late in the season.

Question 8

Answer: No word yet on salary numbers for assistant coaches, but expect Leonhard and Rudolph to earn raises. Rudolph made $650,000 last season, and Leonhard made $600,000.

Question 9

Answer: Well, the obvious answer is that Wisconsin has to win four games in four days to earn the automatic berth as Big Ten Tournament champion. Even with as well as the Badgers have played down the stretch, I can’t see Wisconsin pulling this off because of depth. It is exhausting to play one game, let alone four on consecutive days. Brad Davison would have to play at least 35 minutes every game, and the starters would have to eat significant minutes all the way around.

Now that I’ve been a Buzz Killington, here is how it can be done. Wisconsin has to ride Davison and Happ and hope that enough teammates contribute offensively to keep the Badgers in the game. Wisconsin’s defense has been much better lately, and that must continue. The Badgers are a low-possession team, and if they can stay within single digits in the second half, we’ve seen the way they can fight their way back into games.

Happ must play at an All-America level and be the best player on the court. Davison doesn’t have to score 30 points every game as he did Sunday against Michigan State, but he has to stay on the floor as much as possible. Khalil Iverson’s ability to neutralize one of the other team’s best scorers is essential. If Brevin Pritzl and Aleem Ford can get hot from the 3-point line at the same time, then the Badgers will be cooking. There are a lot of ifs in there, but that is what it would take for No. 9 seed Wisconsin to pull off an all-time stunner at the Big Ten Tournament.

Question 10

Answer: Yes, it is possible that somebody considers a transfer after this season. But any of those players will have to take a good look in the mirror and ask themselves if they think it is worth sitting out a full season under NCAA rules to have one season of eligibility remaining somewhere as a redshirt senior. Maybe there is a better fit at the mid-major level or one of them believes they simply need a change of scenery. You can’t fault a player for doing what he thinks is best. Those conversations certainly will be had in the weeks after Wisconsin finishes its season.

Will Greg Gard go the graduate transfer route? If ever there were a season to pursue it, this is the one. Gard looked into graduate transfers last season, but the Badgers weren’t able to snag one. Wisconsin needs front-court help given the inconsistency of Alex Illikainen, Charlie Thomas and Van Vliet. If Wisconsin wants to take another step next season, I’m not sure relying on those three is the answer.

It is so late in the recruiting game that there may not be an instant impact player out there for Wisconsin in the front court. We will see what the coaching staff ultimately decides.

Question 11

Answer: The fact Aron Cruickshank is on campus as an early enrollee certainly helps speed up his development. He and Taj Mustapha are both wide receivers in the 2018 class who are at Wisconsin in time for spring practice. I will have a better idea of where things stand when spring practice begins March 13.

I would guess Cruickshank contributes more on special teams than he does as a fifth receiver, but maybe he can help as an occasional slot man or on jet sweeps. I’m not sure how much room will be left after Quintez Cephus, Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor. That is as good a foursome as Wisconsin has had at receiver. Anything else after that in 2018 should be considered a bonus.

Have a question about Wisconsin football, basketball or recruiting? Tweet us @Landof10Badgers and we’ll try to answer your question in a future mailbag. Check to see if your question already was answered by reading previous Wisconsin mailbags here.