When Josh Gasser tore his ACL last season, it was unclear how badly it would effect the Badgers' backcourt. After a rough start to the season, Traevon Jackson emerged as a legitimate point guard and a level-headed leader of the Wisconsin offense. This season, Gasser triumphantly returned from injury, and found himself in a remarkably deep Wisconsin backcourt. While Gasser won't light up the stat sheet, his calming offensive presence gives Wisconsin the best chance they've had in a while to make a tournament run.
Gasser's first two years in Madison were wildly successful. In his freshman year, he started 30 games and averaged 28.1 minutes a game. If that doesn't seem significant to you, consider this: in Sam Dekker's freshman year, he started 3 games. And Dekker was a 5-star recruit! The 13th best player in the country! If you're a freshman, you have to earn a starting job in Bo Ryan's system. Gasser did just that, and played with the maturity of an upperclassman. He was second on the team with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.5, and only turned the ball over 13 times in all of conference play. While his 5.9 points per game don't jump out at you, the computers loved his offensive contributions. As a freshman, he was 28th in the country in offensive rating, coming in at 124.6. This means that the Wisconsin offense ran much more efficiently when Gasser was on the floor. But that doesn't mean Gasser was afraid to knock down the big shot. He made sure we all knew he was clutch with his buzzer-beater over Michigan.
Wisconsin's Josh Gasser tops Michigan basketball team with a buzzer-beater (via iDetroitOnline)
The one constant in Josh Gasser's game throughout the years is his knowledge of when to shoot the ball. This became extra clear in his sophomore year, and is still clear today. In 2011-12, Gasser played 84.6% of the team's minutes. In that time (34.1 minutes a game), he put up a True Shooting Percentage of 62.4%, good for 68th in the country. What's amazing is that he was used in only 12.9% of possessions, and took only 11.4% of the team's shots. There aren't a lot of guys in the country who are so effective in such small doses. In fact, one of KenPom's closest comparisons to Gasser that year is Wisconsin guard Jason Bohannon from 2008. Both were used in limited roles, but were reliable offensive threats when the opportunity came. Last season, Wisconsin lacked that type of offensive awareness, and it hurt them in the long run.
But this season, all is right in the world. Josh Gasser is back, and Wisconsin is 15-0. The best thing? Gasser hasn't changed a bit offensively. His offensive rating is again through the roof, at 129.3, and he's doing it in short, yet effective bursts. Gasser is a part of 13.3% of the team's possessions, and takes 11.6% of the shots this year. But as expected, he's got a sky-high True Shooting Percentage of 64.5%.
So far, his most valuable contribution to the 2013-14 Badgers has been allowing Bo Ryan to rest Traevon Jackson without bringing the offense to a halt. As Wisconsin fans know, Jackson can occasionally get a little wild with the ball. In his first full year as a point guard last season, Jackson did an admirable job, but still had a turnover rate of 25.2%. That's because Bo Ryan didn't have any other options; he had to let Trae figure it out on the court. This year, Jackson's turnover rate has gone down significantly to 19.0%, and Gasser's presence has played a major role in Jackson's development.
This was most evident in Wisconsin's win over Iowa on Sunday. Jackson struggled the whole game, logging 7 turnovers and making consistently poor decisions. Because of this, Bo Ryan let Gasser run the point for stretches in the second half. That's not Gasser's natural position, and by no means is Gasser athletically able to play point guard for long stretches, but Bo knew his sharp decision making would help calm the offense down. He did just that. Gasser only turned the ball over once against Iowa, and played a major role in the second half comeback. Gasser also came up huge from the foul line, hitting 6-7, including 4 from intentional fouls as the seconds dwindled away. Last season, without Gasser, I think Wisconsin loses that game. Gasser's offensive poise kept the team's winning streak alive.
When the dog days of conference play come, Wisconsin will be tested each night, with games similar to the victory over Iowa. These games will only get harder in the NCAA Tournament. As long as Josh Gasser is in the lineup, Wisconsin's offense will run smoothly. This team is built to make a deep run in March, and will do so on the back of Josh Gasser.