MADISON, Wis. — Josh Gasser sat at the end of Wisconsin’s bench as the final seconds ticked off during Sunday’s Big Ten championship game. He glanced at Ohio State’s players celebrating while confetti dropped from the rafters. He shuffled into the locker room with the rest of his teammates and plopped himself into a chair, trying — unsuccessfully — to avoid asking the one question that had been on his mind the past five months.
“Not being able to play, you have constant basketball thoughts running through your mind,” Gasser said. “It’s always, ‘What if I was playing? What would happen in this situation? What wouldn’t?’ Stuff like that. It’s just really hard to say. Sitting on the bench and knowing there’s nothing I can do to help is probably the hardest part.”
A spot as a casual observer is not the position Gasser envisioned for himself when fall practices began. He had spent the summer preparing to take over for Jordan Taylor as Wisconsin’s starting point guard, and players and coaches already were taking note of Gasser’s leadership skills.
Badgers coach Bo Ryan, who rarely spouts effusive praise for his players in October, declared Gasser as his starter during the Big Ten’s annual media day. Gasser’s defense was better than past point guards, Ryan said. His ball handling and decision-making were as effective as anybody around. This team would go as far as Gasser took it.
Two days later, on Oct. 27, Gasser’s season unexpectedly ended when he tore the ACL in his left knee during practice.
“I didn’t know how bad it was,” Gasser said. “I’ve never suffered an ACL injury or anything like that. If I had to mentally picture what it would feel like, it was probably that. I heard a pop and I felt it, and my leg was just kind of dangling there, so I knew it was bad.”
Gasser couldn’t have imagined how arduous the road to recovery would be. He assumed there would be more time to hang out with coaches before practice, to crack jokes with teammates in the locker room. Instead, most of his time was — and still is — spent away from others in the training room.
On Monday, for example, Gasser said he spent seven to eight hours in rehab. Sessions included massage treatments, loosening his legs on a stationary bicycle, muscle strengthening on his quadriceps, hamstrings and calves, range of motion drills and ice.
“It’s crazy how it just basically falls apart on you,” Gasser said. “After surgery, your leg just is kind of not there anymore, so you’re building that up. It’s just a long process. It’s mentally grueling pretty much.”
It is equally grueling for Gasser to know he can’t contribute this season on the court. No. 5 seed Wisconsin (23-11) will begin play in the NCAA tournament against No. 12 seed Ole Miss (26-8) at 11:40 a.m. CT Friday in Kansas City, Mo. And Gasser will be watching from afar, back with his family in his hometown of Port Washington, Wis.
Gasser’s teammates say they have used his injury as motivation for their successes.
“I think we all kind of wanted to do well for him,” Badgers center Jared Berggren said. “It sucks having him out. I think he’s still very much a big part of the team. He’s still around every day at practice and lifting and all the film sessions and things like that. He’s done a good job of just putting his two cents in.”
Wisconsin point guard Traevon Jackson, a sophomore who has taken over Gasser’s spot as the team’s starter, described Gasser as upbeat despite the setback. The same work ethic that lifted Gasser into the starting point guard role is allowing him to thrive during rehab sessions. It also doesn’t go unnoticed by players such as Jackson.
“I look at my games where I haven’t really played well and I come back and see him, and you see it could be a way worse situation,” Jackson said. “He’s still working, no excuses. You’ve just got to look at how he handles himself.”
Gasser, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior, is taking a redshirt season and will have two years of eligibility remaining. He started 66 of 70 games during his first two seasons in the program. Last season as a sophomore, he averaged 7.6 points and 4.2 rebounds, establishing himself as one of the smartest players on the team. His 1.95 career assists-to-turnovers ratio ranks fifth in program history.
Those numbers were supposed to make for a steadying presence in the backcourt and lift Wisconsin into a legitimate contender to win the Big Ten regular season championship. With Gasser out, the team struggled to adjust much of the season while Jackson and redshirt freshman George Marshall filled his role. The Badgers still finished fourth in the conference, but the two-game difference from first led Gasser to the inevitable “what if” questions again.
If there is a silver lining to come out of this scenario, however, it’s that all three players will have plenty of game experience when Gasser returns for the 2013-14 season. Guard Ben Brust, a junior who is one of Gasser’s best friends on the team, also has been forced to take on more of a leadership role and will return for his senior season as a better player because of it.
Gasser, who still has months of rehabilitation ahead of him, said he would be ready in time for the first official practice next October. He recognizes the biggest hurdle upon his return will simply be overcoming the mental blocks that come with running and cutting again.
“I know when I get out there, it’s going to take at least a couple weeks, a while for me to get back to mentally being able to be out there,” Gasser said. “I’m just excited to get out there and play. If I’m terrible, I don’t really care. I just want to play.”