Going into Wisconsin's 2012-2013 campaign, Wisconsin fans were excited to have Josh Gasser playing point guard, leading a very experienced team, especially up front. Gasser's season ending injury, forcing him to redshirt, left the Badger backcourt in shambles and looking for players to step up. The lack of depth plagued their entire season, although they still had great success overall, earning a five seed in the NCAA Tournament and reaching the Big Ten Tournament championship game. Ben Brust was one of the most consistent players on the team, averaging the most minutes (34.3) and points (11.1) per game, however he remained in his shooting guard role throughout the season. Traevon Jackson did step up at the end of the season, but the inconsistency and fluidity of guard play had Wisconsin fans wondering what last years team could have accomplished with a healthy Josh Gasser. Today is a new day, with every guard who received real playing time last season back, along with Gasser (with two years of eligibility remaining) and freshman Bronson Koenig set to make an impact immediately.
The consensus seems to be that Josh Gasser, Ben Brust, and Traevon Jackson will be the starters on opening night, and I would be shocked if this wasn't the case. Maybe if Gasser isn't 100% yet he will sit out for a bit, but once he is completely back these three will start. They undoubtedly have the most experience in the program, and represent the most consistent play both offensively and defensively. If Gasser isn't ready to go, I would expect George Marshall to replace him in the starting lineup.
Ben Brust developed into one of the conference's premier shooting guards last season. He had the fifth-most 3-point attempts last season, and easily had a higher 3-point percentage than anyone who had more attempts. He also, as any Michigan fan will know, is a weapon from anywhere on the court near the end of the game.
I expect more of the same from Brust, who should benefit from improved point guard play by getting more spot-up open looks from behind the arc. He is also a very underrated defender and rebounder, as he averaged 5.2 rebounds per game, good for 19th in the conference, and 2nd among all true guards, behind Victor Oladipo. He should have an incredibly solid senior season, likely leading the team in minutes once again, and competing with Sam Dekker for the team scoring leader, while drilling 3's from all over the place.
Without Trae Jackson, the success of last season could have been lost altogether. Concurrently, he will undoubtedly play an incredibly important role under the radar this season. He is known for his defense, shutting down opposing guards as he did to Trey Burke (if that's even possible) in Wisconsin's two wins over Michigan last year. However, he struggled for the most part offensively, with one of the worst shooting percentages (.372) on the team. He believes he has transformed his game going into his junior season, becoming much more confident and comfortable in his role. Badger fans should be excited to hear this, because if Jackson can become an offensive weapon to complement his defensive consistency he will be a factor whenever he touches the court.
Josh Gasser will likely be the x-factor to determine how good this group of guards really will be. He is recovering from a torn left ACL sustained early last season, so he hasn't played a game since March of 2012. Before his injury, he was a key component of the offense, with a .452 3-point percentage his sophomore year and a career 1.95 assist-to-turnover ratio. He also was on the 2012 Big Ten All-Defensive Team. His health and recover is the key, obviously, but he says he has made significant strides just since the offseason trip Wisconsin took to Canada. His size and do-it-all ability make Gasser a dangerous weapon, with lots of potential, as he can play at the 1, 2 or 3 position. If he can play at 100% level, and improve upon his game from two seasons ago, he will make a significant impact both offensively and defensively.
Two players that I expect to have a large impact on this years team are redshirt sophomore George Marshall freshman Bronson Koenig. Marshall was expected by some to take over the starting point guard position last year following Gasser's injury, but early in the season he looked clearly outmatched and uncomfortable handling the offense. He fell into a relegated role, coming off of the bench as a backup guard and 3-point specialist, shooting .368 from behind the arc on the season. He showed glimpses of his offensive potential, such as when he dropped 20 points in the second half in a loss at Iowa. This year, Marshall says he is going to be much more aggressive, as he showed in a strong performance in Wisconsin's Red/White scrimmage. If Marshall is going to be able to come off the bench and provide a spark to the offense, by using his speed to drive inside or by hitting big 3-pointers, he is going to have a significant role on this team.
If you are a Badger fan, you should be excited about Bronson Koenig. The 2013 Wisconsin AP Player of The Year led St. Thomas Aquinas to the Wisconsin division 3 state championship last season, and came to Wisconsin over offers from Duke, Kansas, Marquette, and others. He was also selected as Wisconsin's senior defensive player of the year, which is why I believe he can contribute right away. Bo Ryan typically wants to let players develop, especially in his defensive system, before giving them significant playing time. But Koenig seems to already have developed a very mature game, and I predict that he will be able to come in to the game in any situation and hold his own.
Freshmen Riley Dearring and Jordan Hill, along with junior Jordan Smith round out this very deep backcourt. Sophomore Zak Showalter, who appeared in 22 games last season, recently decided to redshirt this season, a testament to how deep this group of guards really is.
Biggest Question: Can Josh Gasser Return from Injury to be a Star?
Gasser clearly isn't back to 100% yet. He is definitely getting close, though, as he scored 7 points with 3 assists in 25 minutes during Wisconsin's opening-night exhibition against UW-Platteville on Wednesday. Bo Ryan likes where he is at, saying "he didn't shy away from anything", and Gasser has said that he is feeling more comfortable and confident each day. If Gasser is able to return to form and improve on his 2011-2012 stats when he averaged 34 minutes and 7.6 points per game, he will be a fantastic addition to last year's backcourt, undoubtedly making everyone on the court better.
This team will likely live and die with the effectiveness of it's guard play. The Big Ten looks small this year, with the majority of skilled big men moving on or having graduated. If four or five guards are able to play consistently, this could be one of Wisconsin's best and most exciting offenses under Coach Ryan. Yes, I just used "Wisconsin" and "exciting offense" in the same sentence. Having many skilled guards on the court may bring up the tempo of the offense a bit, which we know Sam Dekker would love. With offensive improvement across the board, I expect the Jordan Taylor-esque days, of waiting until there are two seconds on the shot clock and throwing up a 3-pointer, to be over. This deep group should be able to provide consistent energy, able to constantly run and drive, hitting Sam Dekker for a slam or kicking it out for an open 3.
Even though he is a household name in Big Ten country, Ben Brust seems to be flying under the radar. Going into his senior season, I expect his overall game to improve to become a do-it-all player, and possibly the best 3-point shooter in the conference. The offensive development of Gasser, Dekker, and even George Marshall, should give Brust even more opportunities for open looks. If Brust, and the rest of this backcourt fill their high potential, Wisconsin could have one of the most efficient offenses in the Big Ten.