KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Christian Watford probably thought he had done his job when the Indiana senior forward stopped Ben Brust from getting to the rim during the first half of a Big Ten Conference tournament semifinal game last weekend.
What Watford quickly discovered was Brust, a junior guard on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, had a backup plan.
A very good one, in fact.
Brust, who had gotten the ball at the top of the key and glided down the left side of the lane through open space created by teammate Frank Kaminsky’s screen before Watford cut off his access to the basket, came to a stop just outside the left block.
A year ago, Brust might have been stuck with nowhere to go. This time, he used a reverse pivot to create some separation between himself and Watford, who at 6-foot-9 is eight inches taller than Brust, and lofted a 10-foot jumper that touched nothing but net.
How Brust produced those points — two of his 12 during the Badgers’ 68-56 victory over the Hoosiers — offered a perfect illustration of how far he’s come during a career that continues to trend upward.
“Ben’s done a great job of expanding his game,” UW senior forward Jared Berggren said, “(by) applying a lot of the stuff we do in practice to become a more well-rounded player.”
Brust is the team’s leading scorer at 11.2 points per game heading into Friday’s NCAA tournament opener between the fifth-seeded Badgers (23-11) and 12th-seeded Mississippi (26-8) at the Sprint Center.
UW associate head coach Greg Gard compared Brust’s development to that of Jason Bohannon, who played for the Badgers from 2006-2010. Both arrived at UW known primarily as spot-up shooters but expanded their games out of sheer necessity.
For Bohannon, it was adding a step-back jumper to his repertoire. Brust has the reverse pivot move that he has gained more and more confidence in since the start of the season.
“It’s been huge,” Gard said, “because you can’t play at this level and be a one-dimensional player, at least for very long.”
The reverse pivot is one of the moves the Badgers work on during a chair drill in practice. Brust walked away from last season knowing he needed to expand his offensive skills — he averaged 7.3 points as UW’s first player off the bench — if he was going to secure a spot as a starter.
Badgers junior guard Josh Gasser, who is sitting out this season with a knee injury, said the reverse pivot was something he and Brust worked on a lot during the offseason.
“He perfected it,” Gasser said. “Whenever we did it in practice, coach Ryan would call it the ‘Ben Brust move’ because he got it down pat.
“It’s just hard to stop. He’s so quick and low to the ground, and then he’ll just stop on a dime and float it right over you. Even if you knew it was coming, it’s just hard to stop because he’s so good at it. That’s just one of the things he’s grown at beyond just being a 3-point shooter.”
Make no mistake, Brust is still lethal from the 3-point line. He’s shooting 39.7 percent from beyond the arc and has made 77 3-pointers on the season, leaving him one shy of tying Sean Mason for UW’s single-season record.
But Brust has become more of a threat inside the arc. Last season, 63 percent of his made field goals were 3-pointers; this season, that percentage is down to 55.8.
UW coach Bo Ryan has praised Brust’s quickness coming off screens. Even if it doesn’t result in points for himself, Brust’s movement away from the ball opens up space for his teammates. UW’s offense is at its best when players are making hard cuts through the paint, and Brust and freshman forward Sam Dekker are the Badgers’ best at doing that.
“He’s a lot more confident this year,” Gasser said of Brust, his roommate and close friend. “He knows he’s one of the best options we have on our team as far as scoring goes and offensively. Just watching him from the sidelines, it’s crazy how much he moves, how if he gets even a little daylight he’s going to make you pay for it.
“He’s really expanded his game, not only as a spot-up 3-point shooter but scoring off the dribble, scoring off curl cuts to the rim. It’s definitely helping our team a lot.”
That’s the plan for Brust, who earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors this season but is happier his improvement led to success for the Badgers.
“Just trying to expand overall,” Brust said. “You try and get better a little bit each time, whether it be in the offseason, in season, you’ve got to learn. … I’m just trying to do what I can to help.”
Brust is helping on both ends of the court, which wasn’t always the case earlier in his career.
“He’s also gotten better at the defensive end,” Gard said. “In the past, maybe we had a find a place to hide him defensively, and now we don’t have to worry about that as much.”
How far has Brust come on the defensive end? Let Gasser explain.
“We used to make fun of him freshman year,” Gasser said. “Coach Ryan said he was the worst defender that’s ever come through this program. He was kind of joking around with it, but I think he was also a little serious and Ben kind of knew it.”
So Brust did something about it, which explains why he’s no longer the butt of his teammates’ jokes. In fact, you could make a case that he’s been UW’s most valuable player this season.
“He was really just a scorer early on in his career and now he’s way more than that,” Gasser said. “Scoring is kind of one of the last things you’ll talk about him just because he is such a good defender now.”