MADISON - While many rules have been instilled to make college basketball a more offensively driven game, playing solid, hard-nose defense still holds its value. Josh Gasser is a perfect example of that.
For those at the Kohl Center paying close attention against No.4 Duke in early December, a defensive rebound and a quick transition opportunity early in the second half appeared to open up a layup opportunity for Duke guard Tyus Jones.
While fans eyed to the ball, Gasser gravitated to a spot outside the circle underneath the basket, planted his feet and embraced his body for impact. In the debated grey area of the block-charge call, Gasser has mastered the art of drawing the offensive foul.
And when he pulls it off, it becomes a thing of beauty.
“He’s just gradually been a program guy who has come through and gotten better in every area every year,” said associate head coach Greg Gard. “Obviously he’s the glue. He’s the bedrock of this team because of what he does defensively. He’s Mr. Reliable. (His teammates) call him Captain America. He’s that utility knife. There’s a lot of different things he can do to help us.”
Having taken 17 charges in his career, it’s a combination of experience and in-depth film study. From Gasser’s pre-game research, he knew the Duke freshman was likely going to veer to the middle to try and convert the bucket. And having played 62 regular season games at the Kohl Center, Gasser knew exactly where he was in his surroundings
“I just tried to set him up, bait him into it, just try to sell it the best I can,” said Gasser. “He’s a freshman, and I’ve been around the block for a few years. I felt like I had a little experience on him and knew what he was going to do. The block-charge rule has gotten so, so tough to call that it’s almost scary to take charges now because you don’t want to bail (the player) out.”
The rules have also led Gasser to occasionally play passive, a word usually not in his vocabulary. Earlier in the Duke game, Gasser was eying up a charge opportunity against forward Amile Jefferson, but decided to only throw his chest into him. The result was a bucket and a Gasser self-promise to not miss his chance again.
“Defense is still a big part of basketball,” said Gasser. “Getting in the right position and making plays that way, that’s what defense is about.”
Other than the Rutgers game, Gasser feels he’s giving exactly what he needs to Wisconsin during Big Ten play, which continues tonight at the sixth-ranked Badgers (17-2, 5-1 Big Ten) travel to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan (12-7, 5-2).
Defining his role as leader and facilitator, in addition to his defense, Gasser says it’s his job to speak up when need to and make sure the Badgers’ All-American duo – Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky – have the ball in their hands for scoring opportunities.
He tries to be efficient on both ends of the floor, but Gasser will agree that he’s not needed to average double figures every night.
“I wouldn’t define myself as a scorer on this team,” said Gasser, “and I’m OK with that.”
That makes Gasser’s quest for 1,000 points even more impressive. He’s 54 points away, meaning he’ll have to average 3.8 over the final 12 regular season games, one Big Ten tournament game and one NCAA tournament game.
“Some people would be surprised by that (1,000 point mark),” said Gasser. “I just don’t do it in big chunks. I just try to be consistent every game, give 8, 9, 10 points, whatever it may be, every night. I don’t take a high volume of shots necessarily. It’s just trying to be efficient and shoot a high percentage.”
For a senior averaging 7.2 points per game and shooting 40.3 percent from 3-point range, it should be no sweat. On pace to set the school record for game’s played and started, Gasser only attempts 4.4 shots per game (by far the lowest among UW’s starting five), but he shoots 85.4 percent from the free throw line and is 13 rebounds and 8 assists away from joining Michael Finley as the only two Badgers in program history with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 250 assists.
“You notice (his presence) the year he was out,” said Gard, referring to the 2012-13 season in which Gasser tore his ACL in the preseason. “Even though he was in the locker room, it wasn’t the same because he wasn’t on the floor or in the huddle. He solidifies and helps bind all those pieces together. He can help you in a lot of ways.”
To his credit, Gasser is always pushing himself to get better. When his defense was resulting in fouls, causing him to miss time on the bench, Gasser went back to work to focus on technique and fundamentals. With fellow senior guard Traevon Jackson out and depth at guard limited, Gasser is learning when to pick his spots in order to stay on the court to be there for his team.
And as expected, his teammates are following his leadership’s lead.
“The last few games we’ve been pretty good,” said Gasser. “When there’s more possessions in a game, you can’t always look at the score. This year’s team has more possessions in a game than four years ago. To hold Iowa to 17 points at half, and one was a half-court shot at the buzzer, that’s a pretty good half, and the second half we weren’t much worse at all.
“We’re getting better each game, which is important. It’s just a matter of buckling down, focusing every single night. That’s the big key.”