Badger of honor: Is Wis. comeback kid the key?

NEED TO KNOW
  • Wisconsin guard had to sit out an entire season due to knee injury
  • This season, Josh Gasser helped his team out of a mid-season slump and into the NCAA tourney
  • West regional No. 2-seeded Badgers face No. 8 seed Kentucky in national semifinal
Josh Gasser

Watching University of Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser at a recent basketball practice, it’s hard to believe he suffered a devastating knee injury a year ago.

He sprints down the court -- weaving, pivoting, spinning -- before deftly getting a shot off or hitting an open player. If he needs to dive to the floor, he dives. If he needs to wedge his 6-foot-3-inch body in somewhere, he wedges it. When the scrimmage ends, he effortlessly trots off the floor. The only nod to the past is the black metal brace hugging his knee.

Gasser (pronounced GAH ser) -- whose team made its 16th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament this year as the West regional No. 2 seed -- was poised to step in as point guard for the 2012-13 season when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus in his left knee shortly before the season began. Major reconstructive surgery followed, and Gasser was forced to redshirt the season.

“I’d spent so much time in the off-season trying to get better -- and I thought I’d gotten a lot better -- and just like that, it was all taken away from me,” he says now of that time.

But while Gasser was devastated by his injury, it didn’t slow him down. He simply took the same energy and passion he’d used to improve in the off-season and applied it to his recovery and rehabilitation. Instead of running sprints, he worked at getting his knee to bend and straighten. Instead of practicing shots, he peddled a stationary bike. When his teammates were in the training room or weight room, so was Gasser.

Despite his tenacity and drive to recover, it wasn’t easy. “The rehab is tough physically, because you lose all the strength in your leg,” Gasser says. “You can’t walk, you forget how to run. You have to relearn how to do every little thing.”

Yet the mental portion of his recovery was actually harder, he says. “You do rehab every day for several grueling hours, but you don’t see progress every day or even every week. But you have to stay at it.”

Gasser did, and even learned the value of sitting on the sidelines: seeing things you simply don’t see when competing. “You can watch all the players closely and see their various tendencies. You can see what works in a game and what doesn’t. When you’re on the court playing, you’re not thinking about any of that,” he says.

When Gasser returned to the court this season, he was as good as ever. Maybe better. Head coach Bo Ryan credited him with holding the team together and helping turn around Wisconsin’s mid-season slump; SI.com named Gasser part of its 2014 All-Glue team. Now, the college junior, who is averaging a career-high 9.2 points per game, will likely be key to Wisconsin’s 2014 NCAA tournament efforts.

Wisconsin will face the No. 8 seed Kentucky Wildcats Saturday at 8:49 p.m. ET in the national semifinal of the NCAA Tournament. If the Badgers wins, they'll face the winner of the Florida Gators/UConn Huskies matchup for the title on Monday.

Gasser’s story doesn’t surprise his teammates or coaches. Assistant coach Gary Close says he never worried about Gasser’s medical hiatus, knowing he’d bring the same strong work ethic and dogged determination to his rehab that he’s always shown on the court. And teammate and roommate Ben Brust simply shrugs when asked how Gasser was able to cope so well with such a serious injury. “That’s just the kind of guy he is,” Brust says.

Practice is winding down and the players are doing line sprints, racing the width of the court, stooping to touch the line, then racing back. Over and over and over. It’s clear they’re tired, and some seem to be dogging it a bit. Leading everyone the entire drill? Josh Gasser.

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.

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