The University of Wisconsin’s quest to develop a point guard on short notice continued Thursday night at the Kohl Center.
Ironically, the Badgers opened Big Ten Conference play with the only team that knows exactly what they’re going through.
UW’s season took a dramatic turn when it lost junior point guard Josh Gasser to a season-ending knee injury during preseason practice. Gasser was named to the Big Ten’s all-defensive team last year, but Penn State suffered a similar blow when Tim Frazier, a first-team all-Big Ten player as a junior, went down with an Achilles tendon injury in the fourth game. He also was lost for the season.
Some might think Penn State got the worst end of that deal, especially given Frazier’s numbers were much flashier than Gasser’s last season. However, Gasser was every bit as important to UW’s success this season as Frazier was to Penn State’s.
Although he scored only 7.6 points per game last season, Gasser was instrumental in everything UW does on both ends of the floor. He was a steadying influence, an improving scorer and UW’s best and biggest defensive guard.
Coach Bo Ryan is always grooming his next point guard and, after two years as a starter at shooting guard, Gasser had the requisite experience to replace all-Big Ten pick Jordan Taylor at the point. His injury left Ryan scrambling, forcing him to give sophomore Traevon Jackson and redshirt freshman George Marshall greater roles than their experience level warranted. The results were at least partially reflected in the Badgers’ uncharacteristically poor — for them — 9-4 non-conference record.
But the Big Ten season waits for no one, and UW’s conference opener was the first big test for Jackson and Marshall. The Badgers’ harder-than-it-had-to-be, 60-51 victory over the Nittany Lions wasn’t pretty for anyone, but it did show how UW will have to operate in order to buy time for its point guards to get up to speed.
Indeed, while the point guards develop, others will have to step up. The Badgers will have to get a dominant performance from their all-senior frontline, get consistent scoring from their other rotation players, play Ryan-like defense and start knocking down free throws. And they will have to get all of those things every game, especially when they play Big Ten contenders.
“We struggled a little bit at guard making some decisions there, so the frontcourt bailed us out,” Ryan said. “For most years that I’ve been here, it’s been the other way around with pretty much being able to make some plays and do some things. We’ve got to get tested like this in these kinds of games and we’ve got to get the guard play up a little bit and make better decisions and, oh by the way, make free throws.”
UW did have a season-low four turnovers against Penn State, so the guards weren’t careless with the ball. However, Jackson and Marshall combined for four points on 1-for-7 shooting and struggled to keep Nittany Lions guards Jermaine Marshall and D.J. Newbill from penetrating into the free throw line area, where they scored the majority of their 31 points.
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said he was pleased with Newbill’s work at the point even though he’s playing out of position. For someone to say the same about UW’s point guards, Jackson has to start knocking down open shots and Marshall has to get better at stopping penetration. Still, Ryan sees progress in the pair.
“Up until that last 4 or 5 minutes, I thought, yeah,” Ryan said. “What did they have, one turnover until then? They made some good passes, and it might not have been the pass that led to the open shot, but it was the one that led to the pass where the guy hit the open player. … So, yeah, they are getting better in decision-making in some areas, but when the heat steps up and you’ve really got to monitor what you’re doing in every half-second, that’s when the guys who have the confidence, the guys who believe (succeed). And the only way you get that is you’ve got to be in practice and in some of those situations and then in games get one, get two and then maybe you turn the corner.”
Until that happens, UW will have to get what it got from forwards Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz. They combined for 38 points, 20 rebounds and made good things happen at critical times. Those three scored UW’s final 17 points as it held off Penn State down the stretch.
“We’re going through some growing pains, obviously,” Bruesewitz said. “As a frontline, yeah, we’ve got to pick some stuff up. We’re fortunate that — I’ll say it — I think ‘Berg’ is one of the best bigs in the country. It helps when you have that. It was pretty obvious tonight that he was the best player on the floor. If he continues to do that, it’s going to be a good thing and it’ll take a lot of pressure off of the guards.”
At this point, UW has no other choice.