MADISON, Wis. — There are instances on the court when Josh Gasser can sense the reaction coming from his opponent. And at this stage of his career, he’s seen enough to know it follows a familiar format.
Missed shot. Turnover. Muttering under breath. Missed shot. Perhaps an illegal nudge to sneak free. Missed shot. Repeat.
The more irritation mounts, the more Gasser is certain he’s winning a battle of wills by playing tough-as-nails defense and deflating the other team’s best guard.
"Yeah, that’s a great feeling," Gasser said. "I can definitely tell when guys get a little frustrated just with the way they play. I can definitely remember most of the games this year and in my career where guys have just kind of talked to themselves under their breath, talking to their teammates, kind of give you a forearm or something like that. That’s when you know you’ve got them a little bit."
Gasser has been such a consistent force defensively that on Monday he was named to the Big Ten’s all-defensive team for the third time in his career — a record for a Wisconsin player. Only Ohio State’s Aaron Craft (four), Michigan State’s Travis Walton and Purdue’s Chris Kramer and JuJuan Johnson have earned that distinction three times in conference history.
Gasser, a fifth-year senior from Port Washington, Wis., never has been one to revel in individual accomplishments. He downplayed breaking the career record for most starts, most minutes and reaching 1,000 points scored earlier this season. But even he stopped following Tuesday’s practice to acknowledge what an honor it is to be included in such an exclusive defensive club on the cusp of No. 6 Wisconsin (28-3, 16-2) opening Big Ten tournament play Friday against the Michigan/Illinois winner in a quarterfinal game.
"Yeah, it means a lot," Gasser said. "At the moment maybe not so much. But it’s definitely something that’s really cool, especially seeing a tweet that named off all the three-time winners and there were some pretty good names of pretty good players that I always looked up to. So to be mentioned in the same sentence as them is pretty special and just knowing that all your hard work paid off individually."
Gasser routinely has been tasked with the most difficult defensive matchup on the floor, and yet he has thrived anyway. As a sophomore in 2011-12, he held the SEC’s leading scorer, Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins, to 3-of-13 shooting from the field in an NCAA tournament victory despite battling the flu. That season, he earned his first all-defensive team honor in the Big Ten.
Despite missing the 2012-13 season because of a torn ACL, Gasser returned to play at the same exceptionally high level and earned two more all-defense league honors the past two seasons. He has been called Wisconsin’s "glue guy" and is not afraid to dive out of bounds for loose balls or lead the team in floor burns, which resonates with teammates and coaches.
That’s the type of guys you need is guys with that fire and that passion and to get stops on the defensive end.
Sam Dekker, regarding teammate Josh Gasser
"He never takes a possession off in practice, let alone games," Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. "He’s always trying to find a way to do something better in every drill that we have. People know my old school ways of certain drills we do every day. Or before games, we have a routine. Josh never skips a beat, and that’s why he’s so solid."
Badgers guard Bronson Koenig said Gasser’s most notable defensive traits were his positioning to stay in the right spots and his strength while battling against quick ball handlers. Koenig cited Sunday’s regular-season finale against Ohio State as an example. In that game, D’Angelo Russell, the Big Ten’s freshman of the year, was held to 7-of-18 shooting, including 1 for 7 on 3-point attempts, during Wisconsin’s 72-48 victory.
"I think he did a really good job on D’Angelo Russell," Koenig said. "Guys like that are kind of lackadaisical and kind of try to play street ball a little bit. Josh just plays solid defense. He doesn’t go for the fakes or the hesitations or anything like that. That can really frustrate. I know in open gym, he didn’t really go for any of my fakes or crossovers or anything like that."
Gasser himself said he was most proud this season of his defensive accomplishments against Russell and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, who won the Big 12 player of the year award. Hield made only 2 of 9 shots from the field and scored nine points — eight below his average — in a late-November game in the Bahamas. It was one of only three games all season in which he scored in single digits.
Of course, it is no coincidence that so many quality players generally have one of their worst games of the season when Gasser is on the court.
"Just ask the guys he plays against," Badgers center Frank Kaminsky said. "They always have nice things to say about his defensive efforts every single time we play against someone else. He’s a good defender. He’s tough. He doesn’t let up on the defensive end, so I’m not surprised. Three times in a row, that’s just a huge accomplishment for him."
Badgers forward Sam Dekker said he spent much of the offseason during open gym sessions facing off against Gasser. The idea, he said, was to make each player better, and that included several one-on-one games. If Dekker scored, Gasser would play even tighter and not allow Dekker any space to create a shot.
"That’s the type of guys you need is guys with that fire and that passion and to get stops on the defensive end," Dekker said. "We’re really proud of what he’s done."
So, too, is Gasser — even if he won’t spend much time reflecting as he readies for one more deep postseason run.
"It’s all a mindset," Gasser said. "It’s all a work-ethic type thing on the defensive end."