MADISON, Wis. — Josh Gasser won’t make the all-rookie team this season or sneak up on opposing teams because they don’t recognize him. In many respects, however, Gasser feels just like a freshman again as he prepares for Wisconsin’s 2013-14 season.
Most know the story by now, of course. Gasser was all set to take over as Wisconsin’s starting point guard last season until he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Oct. 27, just days before the season officially began. He was forced into taking a medical redshirt season — and forced to watch the game he loved from the bench for the first time.
The rate at which players recover from a torn ACL differs from person to person. Gasser’s intense drive during his rehabilitation certainly helped the process, but the fact remains that he hasn’t played in a college game since March 22, 2012 — a span of 19 months. That drought will finally end when Wisconsin, ranked No. 21 in the preseason coaches Top 25 poll, plays host to UW-Platteville on Oct. 30 in an exhibition game.
“The game seems so much faster,” Gasser said during Wisconsin’s media day two weeks ago. “Everything is happening where I’m just kind of spinning a little bit. I need to prove myself again. That’s the way I’m trying to act. Everything is so different now, but I’m getting better. So that’s a good thing.”
How Gasser, a fourth-year junior, fits into the team’s plans this season remains to be seen. Junior Traevon Jackson steadily improved after taking over the point guard reins in Gasser’s absence last season, and he has done enough to retain his starting spot. With senior guard and leading returning scorer Ben Brust back, that could move Gasser to the 3 spot in a three-guard lineup, though he is still plenty capable of running the show if necessary.
But before Gasser contributes, he must first find the confidence that made him one of the more steady Badgers in recent memory. As a freshman, he famously recorded the first triple-double in program history against Northwestern. He ranks fifth at UW in assists-to-turnovers ratio (1.95) and 10th in career 3-point shooting accuracy (39.1 percent).
That Josh Gasser hasn’t left his system. Gasser did acknowledge, however, that it was probably “unrealistic” to expect the same player during the early portion of this season.
“I expect a lot out of myself when I play,” Gasser said. “Just not being able to play last year, I’ve pretty much been envisioning playing in my mind and coming back and stuff. And you just expect so much out of yourself. When it actually comes, you get a little disappointed with your play. At the same time, each day I’m progressing. I feel more confident each day. I’m doing a few more things each day and that’s good.”
Despite his one-year absence, Gasser remains one of the most important pieces to Wisconsin’s team. He still 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.
Brust has played the second-most minutes among returnees (2,013). Jackson is next (1,065), followed by sophomore forward Sam Dekker (780) and junior center Frank Kaminsky (600).
“It feels like he hasn’t ever played at Wisconsin because it’s been so long,” Brust said. “But he still leads the team in minutes played on anyone who’s on this team right now. He’ll bring experience. He’ll bring consistency, and that’s something we’re going to need.”
During his sophomore season in 2011-12, Gasser averaged 7.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists. In some respects, the statistics are secondary this season to simply contributing to the team in a positive way. During Wisconsin’s five-game Canadian exhibition tour in August, Gasser averaged 14.3 minutes and 4.3 points per game.
“He’s done some pretty good things,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “Sure, every once in a while you’ll see him reach down and grab his knee. Not grab his knee like it’s in pain but just kind of readjust his brace or keep reminding himself that I’m OK. I’m all right. I can do this.”
Wisconsin began fall practices in late September for the first time this year — the result of an NCAA rule change that allows teams 30 practices before their first official game. And the earlier start date has proven beneficial for Gasser, who used those days to test his knee while slowly rebuilding his game and his psyche.
“I noticed the first couple practices, if I would drive to the hoop I would kind of think what leg I was planting off and going off or something like that,” he said.
“Usually throughout this whole rehab process, once I did something for the first time I usually got over the hump and then I was good. That’s why playing in these practices, playing in a live atmosphere is definitely helping me. If I drive to the hoop, do a jump stop and finish, I know I can do it. I’ve just got to keep progressing and getting better that way.”
Given his work ethic and talent level, the Badgers are sure he’ll get there soon.