MADISON, Wis. — Josh Gasser and Ben Brust have spent enough time playing against each other in pickup basketball games that they’ve developed a fiercely competitive yet healthy rivalry over the years. Yet when Gasser recently stepped on the court for a five-on-five game for the first time in more than nine months, Brust had no idea how to handle the situation.
He had watched Gasser struggle through a grueling rehabilitation of a torn left ACL, and now he was supposed to guard his good friend and roommate as though everything was fine. But was it?
“The first day Ben was covering me, he kind of whispered to me, ‘What should I do?'” Gasser recalled. “I’m like, ‘Do what you want, but I wouldn’t mind scoring a bucket.’ He gave me a post up and I scored. After that I was like, ‘All right we can play now.’ I just had to get that first one under my belt.”
The strides to reach this point have been exhausting, but Gasser is back and cleared to play again for the University of Wisconsin. The news comes just in time for Wisconsin’s five-game, eight-day trip to Canada next week, where Badgers coach Bo Ryan expects Gasser to play between 8-12 minutes per game.
“If we can get that, that’d be great,” Ryan said after practice Sunday. “And it’s good in that other guys will be getting minutes, too. I kind of know what Josh can do.”
Though Gasser said he was cleared for full contact two weeks ago during the last week of summer workouts, he has taken his return to the court slow. He began playing five-on-five games for only three possessions at a time before resting.
“I’m still trying to build up from there,” Gasser said. “I’m not trying to overdo it. I don’t want to be too sore to the point where I can’t do anything the next day. Still taking it pretty slowly here and just getting more confidence each day.”
Gasser is ahead of schedule because he initially had targeted the first day of practice in October as a return date. The fact he is on the court at all this soon is a testament to his work ethic and determination to come back. Over the course of his rehabilitation, he often spent almost entire days in the training room, particularly when classes weren’t in session.
Brust said he was anxious to see what Gasser could do on the court in Canada because Gasser has spent very little time this month playing in full contact games. Brust was involved in the play that ended Gasser’s season last October. The two collided when Brust tried to take a charge as Gasser dribbled to the hoop, causing Gasser’s knee to buckle.
“It’s been a long road,” Brust said. “To be here where we’re at right now, it’s exciting for me at least. It was obviously tough at first for me. But in the long run, it’s one of those things where something happens, it might be for a better reason in the future.
“I think he’s done so much in that training room. I can’t even tell you the countless hours and all the sweat that he’s done in there. There’s no doubt in my mind that when he gets out there, he’s going to be ready to go.”
During his sophomore season in 2011-12, Gasser averaged 7.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists. And as he prepared for what was to be his junior season, he was ready to take over the starting point guard role left vacant by graduated senior Jordan Taylor.
In late October, Ryan declared Gasser his starter for the season, citing the virtues of Gasser’s ball-handling and decision-making skills — his career assists-to-turnovers ratio of 1.95 ranks fifth in program history. Ryan also praised Gasser’s tenacious defense.
Two days later, on Oct. 27, Gasser tore his ACL during practice. He underwent surgery Nov. 6.
The injury forced Traevon Jackson and George Marshall into action at point guard, which has created an especially deep backcourt this season. Throw in freshman Bronson Koenig, and there are five players capable of bringing the ball up, including Brust.
A year ago, Gasser was excited to take over point guard duties from Taylor. And though Gasser said he would love to play point guard now, he enters this season with a different outlook.
“My main goal is to get out there and play and help our team,” Gasser said. “I don’t really care what position I’m playing. I could see myself playing 1 through 4 really potentially. So I’ve got to be able to do all those things. I love having the ball in my hands, being able to run the offense. At the same time, we’ve got a lot of other guys that can do that, too. I don’t even know if we’ll have a set guy as our point guard. We could have multiple guys do it, and I think that’s a benefit for our team.”
Even after sitting out last season, Gasser has played more career minutes (2,184) than any other Badgers player on the roster. He has started 66 of 70 games and averaged 31.2 minutes per outing. Whatever he can provide this season certainly will offer a lift to a team that begins the season with six freshmen.
Gasser admitted it would take some time to return to the form he demonstrated during his first two seasons with the program. He will be forced to wear a knee brace during all practices and games, and he is still adjusting to the difference.
But the more time he spends on the court, the more comfortable he feels. That means Brust will no longer take it easy on his friend. Gasser, of course, wouldn’t want him to anyway.
“Now we’re out there, we’re battling,” Brust said. “Each day he’s getting better, and he’ll be ready to go.”