Josh Gasser ensuring Badgers don’t lose defensive identity

MADISON, Wis. — Josh Gasser is as thrilled as anybody with
Wisconsin’s best start to a basketball season in 20 years. But even as the
Badgers bulldozed their early-season nonconference opponents, something was
missing that irked Gasser: a signature defensive effort.

Gasser, Wisconsin’s fourth-year junior, had been candid
about his team’s inability to stop opposing players in the way Badgers teams of
years past had done. And the fact Wisconsin was scoring more points than ever
before did not provide an excuse for allowing more points, too.

That’s what made Wisconsin’s 48-38 victory against Virginia
on Wednesday so fulfilling for him. Gasser, the team’s best perimeter defender,
was at the forefront of the effort, and he wasn’t alone. Wisconsin allowed its
fewest points in a road game since 1957.

“I was really happy that we won that way (Wednesday)
night,” he said Thursday. “It was kind of frustrating for me
personally to see us play so poorly defensively and give up that many points
throughout our first couple games. Just to show that we can win games in a
variety of ways is really important because once Big Ten season comes, there’s
going to be games you’ve got to grind them out like that.”

The conference season is still four weeks away, but Saturday
will offer another opportunity for the Badgers to showcase their newly acquired
swagger on defense. No. 8 Wisconsin (9-0) plays host to in-state rival
Marquette (5-3) at 1:15 p.m. at the Kohl Center. Based on previous games in the
annual affair, it will require a stellar defensive performance from Gasser and
Co. to extend the Badgers’ spectacular start.

The Marquette game is especially meaningful for Gasser, a
Port Washington, Wis., native who grew up in the shadows of Golden Eagles
basketball.

“For my family, for my friends, for myself, it’s a big
game,” he said. “I have it circled on my calendar, always, every
year. It’s just a fun game to be a part of. I love rivalries like this.”

One of the common refrains heard from players in the lead-up
to the Virginia game was how badly Wisconsin played against the Cavaliers last
season, when UVA escaped with a 60-54 victory at the Kohl Center. Players said
Virginia was tougher and more physical, and coaches had reminded them of their
shortcomings this week.

The Badgers offered similar sentiments Thursday ahead of the
Marquette game. Last season, Marquette beat up Wisconsin for a 60-50 victory in
Milwaukee.

“They took it to us physically, mentally,” Badgers
forward Sam Dekker said. “Their environment got to us, I think, and we
were very soft. And we don’t want to feel that again this year. We’ve got to
play strong, hopefully use our home crowd behind us, get a little momentum and
just play Wisconsin basketball. That’s being a tougher team and something we
pride ourselves on.”

The toughness Wisconsin is developing this season starts
directly with Gasser. Two years ago, before he sustained an ACL injury and
missed the 2012-13 season, he was named to the Big Ten’s all-defensive team.
And he has picked up this season where he left off as the team’s standout
stopper.

During Wednesday’s game, for example, he held Virginia guard
Joe Harris to 1-for-10 shooting from the field and two points in 33 minutes. A
year ago, without Gasser on the floor, Harris scored a game-high 22 points in 35
minutes. Before Wednesday, he had hit 11 of his last 12 3-point attempts.

“Josh has been able to add to this team and what we
lacked last year in terms of what he brings,” Badgers associate coach Greg
Gard said. “Leadership, toughness and experience. You forget he’s the only
guy in Wisconsin history to have a triple-double and did it as a freshman.
Started games as a freshman. So he’s logged a lot of miles in terms of his
experience for only being in his third year of playing.

“That is probably the biggest thing more so than maybe
one specific thing he does is just his presence and his poise that he brings,
and that’s infectious throughout everybody else as well.”

Gasser’s intelligence also has allowed him to pick his spots
on offense and give Wisconsin yet another viable scoring threat. He is
averaging 10.4 points per game even though he has taken 32 fewer shots than any
other starter on the team. Gasser has connected on 11 of 22 3-pointers, which
is the best long-range percentage on the team (50.0) and ranks second in the
Big Ten in that category. He’s also an 84.6-percent free-throw shooter, which
ranks eighth in the conference.

“I feel like I’m OK,” Gasser said. “Playing
all right. Can’t complain. I’m just glad to be out there with my teammates playing.
After last year, I’ve learned to really appreciate that, just to be out there.
Give 100-percent effort, do whatever I can to help us win. Each game, each day,
each week, I feel a little bit better. I’m a little more confident. Hopefully
it shows on the court.”

Wisconsin dropped its defensive scoring average from 66.3 to
63.1 points per game with its performance against Virginia. That jumped
Wisconsin into No. 34 nationally in scoring defense. The Badgers have ranked in
the top 10 nationally in scoring defense in each of the past seven seasons.

It will require even more effort for Wisconsin to reach the
top 10 for an eighth straight season. But with Gasser on the floor, the Badgers
have a chance.

“Obviously, we took a huge step (Wednesday)
night,” Gard said. “That’s good. That shows that guys are listening.
They’re buying in. They’re working together. Individually, a great job by Josh.
But other guys really helped out as well.”

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