Wooden Watch: Ethan Happ making a case

Ethan Happ's solid season could make for a sneaky Wooden Award win. Mary Langenfeld/USA TODAY Sports

Is this 1987 all over again? No, we're not talking about cassette tapes and beatboxing. That year, David Robinson beat Kansas star Danny Manning, who would lead the Jayhawks to a national title a year later, and Indiana standout Steve Alford, who led Indiana to a national title in 1987, in the race for the Wooden Award.

Robinson put up remarkable numbers for a Navy squad that hadn't reached the NCAA tournament in 25 years before his arrival.

The Wooden Award has historically been given to the best players from blue-blood programs. That's why February could be nothing more than a victory lap for Duke's Zion Williamson -- or a chance for a late push from No. 1 Tennessee's Grant Williams.

But watch out for Ethan Happ.

Since the Wooden Award's inception in the 1976-77 season, 12 of its winners have participated in the national title game. Over the past 10 seasons, every winner has played for a team that secured a top-3 seed in the NCAA tournament with the exception of Trey Burke, who led Michigan, a 4-seed, to the national title game in 2013.

That's why Happ's candidacy seemed questionable on Jan. 14, when he scored 10 points (on 5-for-10 shooting) in a loss to Maryland. At the time, he was a star player for a Wisconsin team that had suffered its fourth loss in five games.

Today, he's a triple-double threat for a Badgers squad that's won four in a row, a stretch that includes a victory over Michigan (26 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists). Could Happ ultimately pull a David Robinson and upset the star of a powerhouse program to win this award? We'll see.

Who would win the award today

Zion Williamson

By now, you're probably bored by this unless you're a Duke fan.

Williamson is No. 1 in KenPom.com's national player of the year rankings. He's averaging 22.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.0 blocks and 2.0 steals per game, and he's made 75 percent of his shots inside the arc. Those numbers are crazy. But you know that already.

This is only monotonous if you assume this is all normal. But nothing about Williamson's season is normal. We've never seen anyone like this.

If you log on to Twitter, folks will call that a lie.

"We've had LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin Durant and Michael Jordan!" OK, fine. But we've never seen anyone like them, either.

James was a phenomenal teenager in the NBA. He wasn't 285 pounds of muscle, though. He wasn't this powerful. He was great when he entered the NBA after high school. But he didn't look like Williamson. It's OK to admit that Williamson is a unique athlete without lambasting freakish players of the past.

He's just different. In this week's victory over Notre Dame, he blocked two shots, guarded a point guard, a small forward and a power forward and slid across the entire court with ease all on the same possession.

Y'all can hate on Williamson and the hype and the praise if you want. You're better off, however, enjoying the show while it's here for the next few weeks.

Next three contenders

Grant Williams: The star of No. 1 Tennessee's run this season is making this interesting. He's averaged 24.0 PPG over the past six games for a Volunteers team that's chasing a national title. Here's something else to consider: Williams leads the nation with 8.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, according to KenPom.com. He's also an 83 percent free throw shooter. Williams will stay afloat in this Wooden Award race.

RJ Barrett: The freshman has the confidence of a senior. Williamson is a star. Tre Jones is the quarterback of this Blue Devils group. Cam Reddish is an important component in everything that Duke does. But Barrett is the emotional leader of this team, it seems. No matter whom the Blue Devils have played, Barrett has been ready to go. In the past three games, he's made 39 percent of his 3-point attempts, a promising development for a player who is averaging 23.6 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 3.8 APG -- Wooden Award-winning numbers most seasons.

Ethan Happ: After he tested the NBA draft waters last summer, Happ (18.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG) talked to Danny Ainge, Magic Johnson and other NBA executives. They all had the same message: Happ had to expand his game and prove he could thrive in a league that's built on spacing and versatility. Happ obviously took notes. He had a triple-double in a win over Northwestern (13 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists). He also leads the Badgers with 5.1 APG. And he's the only big man in the top 10 nationally in assist rate on KenPom.com. He is also rated as an "excellent" defender on isolation players, per Synergy Sports data. Happ is doing some amazing work this season, and the Badgers have hit their stride at the right time because of it.

The other contenders