MADISON, Wis. — When Josh Gasser dribbled to the hoop, sidestepped his way across the lane for a layup and heard a pop in his left knee during Saturday’s practice, he knew he was in trouble.
The diagnosis was as bad as Gasser feared.
Gasser, Wisconsin’s starting point guard, had suffered a season-ending tear to his left anterior cruciate ligament. In an instant, his college basketball career had changed. And the fate of the Badgers’ season may have changed as well.
“The physical pain was pretty bad,” Gasser said. “But it was nothing compared to the emotional and mental pain that happened.”
Gasser, who spoke with reporters Tuesday for the first time since the injury, watched practice from the sideline, a chair propping up his heavily bandaged and braced leg. He said he would undergo surgery Nov. 6 and intends to return in time for next season. He will take a redshirt season and will have two years of eligibility remaining.
Gasser has quickly come to grips with the idea of watching this season from afar.
“It sucks,” he said. “I can’t really describe it, I guess. Watching the scrimmage is probably worse. I’m going to do everything I can to help us.”
Wisconsin has no choice but to move on without Gasser, a two-year starter whose injury is a devastating blow to the team’s point guard rotation. Last season, Gasser played the second-most minutes on the team (34.1 per game) behind point guard Jordan Taylor. Gasser averaged 7.6 points and 4.2 rebounds and shot 45.2 percent from 3-point range.
Badgers coach Bo Ryan announced last Thursday at Big Ten basketball media day that Gasser would take over for Taylor as the team’s starting point guard. But without him in the lineup, redshirt freshman George Marshall and sophomore Traevon Jackson will be called on to lead the team. Junior shooting guard Ben Brust also could slide over to the point.
Jackson appeared in 17 games last season and averaged 5.4 minutes. Marshall wowed teammates on the scout team but hasn’t yet played in a college game. And Brust averaged 7.3 points while serving primarily as a 3-point shooting threat.
Gasser said the team wouldn’t skip a beat offensively without him, but he acknowledged the Badgers could face defensive struggles and would lack a vocal leader. Gasser was an all-Big Ten defensive player last season who often defended the other team’s best guard. He indicated Jackson was the most likely candidate to fill his role defensively because he is physical and willing.
“When he wants to, he can be one of the better defenders on our team,” Gasser said. “(He’s) just got to be willing to do it for 30 minutes, 25 minutes, whatever it’s going to be. He definitely showed he can do it. He’s strong. He’s physical. He’s just got to buy into the system, do what’s asked of him and he’ll fill the role just fine.”
Gasser noted his only other significant athletic setback was an ankle injury sustained during his senior year of high school at Port Washington in Wisconsin. He was forced to miss the football season but returned in time for basketball.
Since Saturday’s injury, he has received an outpouring of support from other athletes who have suffered ACL injuries, including Wisconsin backup quarterback Curt Phillips, Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe and former Wisconsin basketball player Sharif Chambliss.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people,” Gasser said. “There’s been so many people who have reached out to me. It’s been pretty overwhelming, but a good thing.”
If there is a silver lining to be found, it may come in two parts. On the court, Marshall and Jackson will gain invaluable playing experience to better serve Wisconsin in the future. On the sideline, Gasser will gain the perspective of a coach.
“Coach Ryan said I get to help be an assistant coach, so that’s a good thing,” Gasser said. “That’s one thing I like to do. I’m going to do that in my future. I guess I’m going to treat this year as like a coaching internship, get to see a different perspective.”
The most difficult aspect of the injury, according to Gasser, is missing out on bonding moments with the team.
“Obviously, there’s going to be ups and downs every year,” he said. “The great thing is to be a part of the team and get to talk to them about it. That’s probably going to be the hardest part this year. I’m obviously part of the team, but are you really? You don’t know. We’ll see how much I really am.”
Gasser’s injury is the second for Wisconsin during the preseason. Forward Mike Bruesewitz suffered a lacerated right leg while falling out of bounds Oct. 9 and is expected to return in mid-November.
Doctors have told Gasser not to rush back from his injury, and he intends to follow their orders.
“I’ll be ready by next season,” he said. “I’m going to take my time with it, get 100 percent. I’m going to work my tail off, come back stronger than ever, and I’ll be ready for next year.”