Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Wisconsin's Josh Gasser said he's getting better everyday as he returns from a torn ACL.
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - Josh Gasser is not one of the six new players on this year’s University of Wisconsin basketball team. But after missing all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament the junior guard kind of feels like one.
“These first couple practices, I feel like a freshman all over again,” Gasser said during the Badgers media day on Friday. “The game seems so much faster. Everything is happening where I’m just kind of spinning a little bit. I’m kind of out here thinking I need to prove myself again. That’s the way I’m trying to act. Like I said, everything is so different now. I’m getting better.”
Gasser injured the knee less than a year ago during a morning practice on Oct. 27. A season of having to sit and watch the Badgers play without him was almost as tough as his recovery. He set goals for himself along the way, and though he’s not at 100-percent, he’s getting closer.
“I’m right where I expected,” Gasser said. “I’d like to be as far ahead as I could be. I’d like to be 100-percent and playing at my peak. But that may be a little unrealistic coming back from this injury. I’m definitely happy with where I’m at. Trainers, doctors are happy with the way my knee is responding. It still gets sore. There is still (some) pain all of the time, but I’m able to play and get better each day and that’s the main thing.”
The guard took a big step over the summer when the Badgers went on their five game exhibition trip to Canada, where he played in four games. And though Gasser’s minutes and production were limited, it was big for his confidence.
“It helped out a lot,” Gasser said. “I found out I can still play. I’m good enough. My knee is healthy. Making cuts and stuff like that it’s not going to give out. It was just good to give me confidence in myself, and to know I just need to get better at basketball now.”
Which is happening through a different practice schedule than Wisconsin and the players are used to. Under a new NCAA rule, teams are allowed to start earlier than the old Oct. 15 date in previous years. So Wisconsin’s first official practice came on Sept. 27 and they can hold 30 practices prior to their first game in Sioux Fall, S.D., against St. Johns on Nov. 8. The ramped up practice schedule is another key moment in Gasser’s recovery both physically and mentally.
“As you reintroduce the practices the volume of work goes up,” new Strength and Conditioning coach Erik Helland said. “I think when you start taking more contact and there is more live action that’s something that’s very difficult to mimic in the training environment. The competitive aspect of it. I think there are still some physical adaptations taking place but a very, very big part of it is just confidence.
“It gets to the point where I think when he starts practices he thinks about the knee. He thinks about the cuts, landing, jumping, all these kinds of things. As he just gets into the flow of playing that goes away.”
UW coach Bo Ryan doesn’t have any concerns about Gasser’s knee, knowing that the doctors and training staff wouldn’t put him out there if he was at risk.
“When you ask me, where is Josh, I’m going to let him do anything he can,” Ryan said. “If he’s going to be on the court, he has to be able to do everything that’s asked of every other player. If he’s not able to, then he’s not on the court. So, he’s been on the court and he’s done some pretty good things. Sure there’s a little, every once in a while you’ll see him reach down and grab his knee. Not grab his knee like he’s in pain. Just kind of readjust his brace or just keep reminding himself that ‘I’m OK. I’m alright. I can do this.’ He hasn’t done any 360-degree tomahawk (dunks) yet, though. He’s not there yet.”
For Gasser, getting back to what he was before the injury is the goal. Being the guy that during the 2011-2012 season shot a team best 45-percent from 3-point range and was named to the All-Big Ten Defensive Team.
“Unrealistic, right now,” Gasser said of being that guy. “I’m just coming back from the injury basically. I’ve only had (a limited number of) practices with the team, so to come out there the first day and be exactly what I was, is not what I was expecting. But each day I’m getting better and by the time the season comes I hope to be exactly what I was. And I will be.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin