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January 28, 2011

Not your typical freshman

MADISON - Josh Gasser usually gets a phone call from his mother before each game. She doesn't necessarily tell him exactly what to do, instead she opts for friendly suggestions.

"She'll call me and joke," Gasser said after a recent practice. "'Get a triple double this game' kind of joking around. The fact that it happened is kind of funny."

The sheer irony is deafening.

One of the rare times Gasser didn't get a call from his mom just so happened to be the game he goes off and does something nobody in the history of Wisconsin basketball has ever done. And he did so during his first season as a collegiate player and as one that not many high level division one programs seemed too interested in during the recruiting process.

Let his 10-point, 12-rebound and 10-assist effort at Northwestern do all the talking.

"It's weird," senior forward Keaton Nankivil said. "You get kind of spoiled watching SportsCenter and seeing LeBron James and those kind of guys get them, but to see it in person in the college game especially is a pretty incredible thing.

"You just realize how much of a hand he had in the entire game."

Gasser, though he's had a number of impressive moments throughout his freshman season - his 21-point, nine-rebound debut and logging the school's first triple double immediately come to mind - hasn't been immune to the typical freshman setbacks.

While speaking to other Badgers, it seems being away from home, learning a new system, adjusting to the pace of play and finding a balance between practice and schoolwork are very real issues plaguing freshmen during their first season.

As the proverbial freshman wall talk comes to the forefront, though tabbing it myth or fact depends on who you talk to, it seems as though Gasser, like any other freshman in the sport, had a slight bout with it.

"Maybe a little bit earlier if we had a short turnaround," sophomore forward Mike Bruesewitz said. "I don't think he's really hit a wall too badly. He's a mentally tough kid and he shows it on the floor. I don't think I've seen it but maybe a couple of times where he was maybe a little bit tired.

"But that happens to everybody"

It's that mental toughness, that ability to hone in on the things that matter throughout a given practice, game or season and sheer intelligence that seems to separate Gasser from the rest of the freshmen that come through Bo Ryan's program. Other than Devin Harris, Alando Tucker and now Gasser, no true freshman has started a game for the veteran coach. So the fact he started game No. 2 of his college career says something, right.

If it doesn't, the fact that none of Ryan's players, or any in UW's past in general, have accomplished some of the things Gasser has done at this early juncture of his career should.

Gasser, the ever-modest talent from Port Washington, isn't one to gloat about his accomplishments, though. He's not foolish enough to think he's done anything anymore important than the long list of guys that have played before him had.

"You'd think a guy like Jordan Taylor would get it if anybody would," Gasser said. "So to get it is a great honor, but the credit goes to the team."

That triple-double didn't come out of nowhere, though.

In the games and practices leading into UW's offensive explosion inside Welsh-Ryan Arena last Sunday, the Badger coaching staff spent time willing Gasser to become more aggressive. They, like anybody else following the team, have seen what he's capable of and how he could help the team, particularly offensively.

The coaches also saw a guy focused on doing what is all together normal for a freshman; deferring any of his offensive output to the capabilities of the proven upperclassmen that have been through the grinds over and again.

"We just wanted to see more," UW assistant coach Lamont Paris said. "When a guy is as talented as he is one thing you don't want guys doing is playing conservative or tentatively. At points it looked like he was beginning to do that. He would get the ball in opportunities to take advantage of a defensive mistake and he wouldn't do it. When you're a freshman you're going to have some ups and downs. That's just how it is with all freshmen in America.

"I think this will hopefully be enough of an up to say, 'Hey, when I'm aggressive I can get some things going for my self and for my teammates.'"

Gasser, who boasts a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio at home, 4.75 assist-to-turnover ratio on the road and an 8.0 assist- to-turnover ratio in neutral sites, agrees with the sentiment. And if any proof is needed to back up the laudatory words, just take a look at the video from UW's last time on the hardwood.

"I was never dissatisfied," Gasser, averaging better than five points a game, said in regards to his aggression. "I was just kind of letting things come to me a little too much. You want things to come to you but at a certain point you have to start being the factor that goes and being aggressive. I've kind of been doing that in practice the past couple of weeks and trying to get used to that.

"I've been playing a little bit better and I'm fine with the way I play no matter what the stats show."

Gasser has been particularly great on the road. In such games he's averaging about the same amount of points as normal, but his rebounds are doubled and his assist to turnover ratio is doubled when compared to his home stats.

It's truly a remarkable figure that just doesn't get enough plug and leaves teammates at a loss of words.

"That's a good thing," Taylor, who's road assist-to-turnover ratio is almost exactly the same as his home ratio is, said after thinking about it. "If you're at home doing that it just means you're more comfortable at home. That's just natural and human nature. If he's doing that on the road you know he's going to be good at home, too."

That has to bode well knowing the Badgers are on pace to qualify for yet another NCAA tournament, all of which takes place in neutral court settings. At least if Gasser continues to build off the success he's already had.

"It's fun playing on the road," Gasser said. "That's for sure. Sometimes the focus is more there because it's so much harder to win on the road. I don't really know what it is. We haven't had as many road games so we'll see down the road.

"But I'm going to try to keep that stat up."




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