After five weeks without their primary post presence in the lineup, the Badgers saw junior forward Jon Leuer get medically cleared to return to practice Monday, getting back one of their biggest offensive weapons.
"It's feels great," Leuer said after practice. "It's been awhile, and I've been working real hard with (Athletic Trainer) Henry (Perez-Guerra) and the whole medical staff. It just feels good to get back out there and mix it up with the guys. That's the main thing I missed – the camaraderie with my teammates."
Leuer has been sidelined since taking a spill in the first half of Wisconsin's 73-66 victory over No.4 Purdue Jan.9. After the game, Leuer was diagnosed with breaking the navicular bone in his left wrist. Leuer underwent surgery without complication on Jan.12 and had slowly been working with assistant coach Gary Close over the last two weeks on shooting and conditioning drills.
"The last two weeks, I have been able to workout just like normal," Leuer said. "Coach Close has helped me out a lot, putting in a lot of extra time with me so I have to thank him for that."
At the time of his injury, Leuer was Wisconsin's second-leading scorer, averaging 15.4 points per game, and leading the team with 6.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. It was a big jolt to Leuer, who had never broken a bone in his body before, to just sit and watch from the sidelines.
"It's tough to watch, but I was just doing whatever I could to support the guys," Leuer said. "They've done a great job for the past couple of weeks. They've been fun to watch. We've had some guys step up and its fun to see some of the younger guys kind of grow and mature and step into more of a role for this team."
Wisconsin – ranked No.14 by the Associated Press – has responded without Leuer in the lineup, going 6-3 in his absence and is one game out of first place with five regular-season games left before the Big Ten Tournament.
In an ironic twist, Leuer's first game back for Wisconsin (19-6, 9-4 Big Ten Conference) will be against his home-state team, as the Badgers take on Minnesota (14-10, 5-7) Thursday night in Minneapolis.
"It was just a coincidence being from Minnesota and we're going to Minnesota," said Leuer, who grew up in Orono, Minnesota. "I'll have some family there and it will be nice to see them, but it really had no bearing on whether I was going to be back or not. The only thing that we were worried about was if I was going to be healthy. We didn't want to have any doubts going into it. We don't now."
Leuer was told by doctors examining the wrist that he should be able to do all the things he was capable of before the injury, a welcomed sight for the Badgers, who are looking to regain some dominance in the post.
Before Leuer's injury, 35.9 percent of its field-goal attempts came from three-point range (303 of 843) and the Badgers hit 35.6 percent of those attempts (108 for 303) and shot 46 percent overall (388 for 843).
With Leuer out, the Badgers' numbers have only dipped slightly (43 percent from the field, 34.3 percent from three-point range), a testament to Wisconsin getting production from its guard players and the youth of stepping into the void.
Without Leuer, the Badgers have seen senior guards Jason Bohannon and Trevon Hughes and sophomore guard Jordan Taylor score 63.6 percent of the team's points, while freshman Mike Bruesewitz has picked up the rebounding numbers (23 boards in 65 minutes of Big Ten play) and sophomore Rob Wilson has picked up some minutes (averaging 21.6 minutes and 6.6 points over the last seven games).
"When Jon went down, it was obviously a big loss because it left a big gap, but everybody rallied around him and us," Bruesewitz said. "Everybody picked it up, especially the seniors taking the reigns. Now with Jon coming back, he's coming back to a much stronger team. Adding him adds a whole other weapon for us."
Wisconsin's three losses without Leuer were at Ohio State (60-51), at Purdue (60-57) and against Illinois (63-56). With Leuer coming back, nobody is interested in looking into what-if scenarios. especially Head Coach Bo Ryan.
When it was announced that Leuer would be sidelined, Ryan emphasized he didn't want his players wondering when Leuer would return and compete for playing time. Asked if he thought he followed his instructions, Ryan responded:
"Us not hitting shots against Illinois or taking a bump there or any other game at Ohio State, at Purdue, there was a couple of periods there of a possession or two that could have changed every one of those games that we didn't get when he was out," Ryan said. "Who's to say if he was in we would. That's why you don't get into it."
Expected to slot into the same role once he gets on to the floor, it's expected that the junior will have some rust and timing issues to iron out. Although the number of minutes he plays Thursday is still unknown, the one factor that is known is that the conditioning he displayed and his physicality in the paint showed that he's confident and ready to compete.
"Today, he looked like he hadn't been gone," associate head coach Greg Gard said. "He played pretty well. I don't think we have a set number we're going to play. Like any substitution pattern, it's game driven with the flow of the game. It's all based on match-ups. He could play 30 or he could play three. It all depends on what happens Thursday night."