Bring up the torn ACL he suffered in a preseason practice two years ago, the look on Josh Gasser’s face droops before he gives his standard answer about how tough the recovery process was, how great it was to play last year and the learning lessons he took away from that trying time.
Bring up the fact that Gasser has ditched the protective knee brace he wore last season and is now moving faster and quicker than he was a year ago, the look turns to an ear-to-ear grin.
“It’s huge just having a whole offseason where you can lift, shoot and do all the things your teammates do without having to worry about four hours of rehab every day and take care of your knee,” he said. “I was definitely able to get in the gym more and be a basketball player, which is awesome.”
Gasser played without any physical limitations last season but still carried around mental baggage, starting the year tentative as he took his repaired knee into an uncontrolled environment. By the middle of the year, he started to look like his old self again by playing his hard-nosed style of basketball that combined aggressive defense with timely shooting.
“I’m definitely more confident this year,” said Gasser. “I’m ready to get this thing rolling.”
That’s a good sign for Wisconsin and for Gasser. Recording the only triple-double in program history, Gasser has played an important role since stepping on campus, starting in 104 of 108 games, and is one of the undisputed team leaders.
One of the more consistent players on both sides of the floor, he’s been named to the Big Ten All-Defensive team twice (2012 and 2014) and only needs 190 points, 64 rebounds, and 36 assists to join Michael Finley as the only two Badgers to post 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, and 250 assists in a career.
“He’s such a big part of our team,” said forward Sam Dekker. “He’s our leader and our voice out there on the court. He brings an energy and a passion that we feed off of.”
Gasser likes to think he’ll be even better for the Badgers after averaging 8.8 points per game and shooting an efficient 43.1 percent from 3-point range. He did all that after a somewhat limited offseason in which he spent multiple hours going through strength exercises on his knee. On average, Gasser would do upper-body workouts in the morning, work with the training staff in the late afternoon and shoot baskets in the early evening.
“I am going to bring the same intensity defensively and as a leader; that’s not going to change, but I want to do it more consistently,” said Gasser. “Every game I play is going to be special. When we play Purdue, it’s the last time I’m going to play Purdue. The list goes on and on, so I’ve got to play this way, knowing I won’t have many more opportunities.”
“I definitely think I’ll be more confident,” he added. “Coming off the injury last year, I wanted to say I was perfect but mentally I wasn’t as strong as I wish I was. That’s the nature of the injury, but I’m really proud how I played. I definitely want to be better. I want Sam to be better. I want Frank (Kaminsky) to be better. I was Trae (Jackson) to be better. We all have to be better if we want to win this thing.”
Joining Dekker (a preseason first-team All-Big Ten pick) and Kaminsky (the conference’s preseason player of the year) in Chicago for Big Ten Media Day Thursday, Gasser was exposed to the expected. With his team the unanimous pick to win the Big Ten by 27 writers polled by the Columbus Dispatch and the Big Ten echoing that same distinction, he was peppered throughout the morning about expectations, about the Final Four run and how good Wisconsin could be returning seven of its top eight scorers from a year ago.
“There’s no hiding it,” said Gasser. “People around the state, people around campus, you can tell there is a little bit more buzz this year, a little bit more excitement. It’s awesome. We’ve put ourselves in a great position for that reward, but every year I’ve been here we’ve expected to win championships. It’s no different.”
Saying his college decision came down to where he could win championships, Gasser has been agonizingly close, but the a championship ring – the thing he wants the most – has eluded him.
In his four years at Wisconsin, Gasser has watched the Badgers fall a combined seven conference wins short of winning a piece of the Big Ten title each season, including just one game in 2009-10 and 11-12.
After using his knee injury as his driving force last year, Gasser’s sole motivation as a senior is to leave Wisconsin having won championships.
“We can be one of the best teams in the Big Ten, one of the best teams in the country, so we’ve got to go out there and make it happen,” he said. “It’s not going to be handed to us.”