By TOM LEA
MADISON – When the Wisconsin Badgers began their NCAA tournament run a season ago, Ben Brust, then a freshman, had only logged minutes in 14 of UW’s 31 games.
And during those 14 appearances Brust tallied just 45-plus minutes of playing time, good for an average of approximately 3.2 minutes per.
Clearly he didn’t serve a major role in the Badgers offensive success.
Now, as a sophomore that once averaged close to 10 points per game for a Wisconsin team fully reliant on complimentary scorers, it seems as though Brust is once again mired in a bit of a slump, both in the minutes he’s accrued and offensive production he’s accumulated.
The sophomore shooter has played in each of UW’s 33 games this season, but in recent games and weeks, his time on the court has been drastically reduced.
Prior to UW’s loss to Ohio State in early February Brust was averaging approximately 25 minutes per game and had only two games (at Penn State and Nebraska) where he logged less than 20 minutes of action. He averaged nine points per game during that stretch.
Since that 58-52 loss to Ohio State, UW’s fourth inside the Kohl Center this season, Brust has only received 12 minutes of playing time per game. His scoring dropped to 2.8 points per game, down nearly seven points from what he established during UW’s first 24 games.
“Obviously it kind of hits you when you’re playing really well at the beginning of the year and then kind of hit a wall where you can’t seem to get anything going,” UW sophomore Josh Gasser, also Brust’s roommate, said. “He’s still staying confident. All he cares about is winning.”
When the No. 4 seeded Badgers open NCAA tournament play Thursday afternoon in Albuquerque against No. 13 Montana, it will likely do so with a steady rotation of eight players, the same starting five UW has featured all 33 games and bench players Rob Wilson, Brust and potentially freshmen Frank Kaminsky and Traevon Jackson.
The emergence and consistent play of Wilson in recent weeks has seemingly taken some of the minutes that used to be available for Brust from him.
The sophomore shooter’s minutes have reduced while Wilson’s have gone up.
“I’ve just got to keep chugging away,” Brust said. “I’ve just got to come out here and practice and produce in practice. Then it will come to the game. We’ll have to see what happens.
“I’m just excited to have another chance to play in the NCAA tournament.”
The intriguing thing about Brust, who is billed as one of UW’s best 3-point shooters, is that he can shoot and make shots from basically anywhere during the Badgers half-court set.
He’s nailed seven 3-pointers in a game twice this season, including a scintillating 7-of-7 performance during his season and career-high 25-point effort against UNLV. He’s capable of making all the shots and providing the lift the Badgers desperately need, much like Wilson has in recent weeks.
“Having two guys like that off the bench is something a lot of teams don’t have,” Taylor said. “Either one of those guys are capable of going off for 25 or 30 if they get hot. Those two just have to stay confident and stay aggressive while looking for their shot.
“The can definitely be a huge weapon for us.”
In Brust’s case, he might be UW’s secret weapon that teams have forgotten about. Every team the Badgers play will know about the hot hand of Wilson, mostly because he just torched Indiana for 30 points in UW’s first game of last week’s Big Ten tournament.
Since Brust isn’t playing or scoring as much as he once did this season, he might not be the focal point teams hone in on when looking at UW’s bench. And that, in essence, could serve the Badgers well during their upcoming run.
“Team’s might start to overlook that,” Gasser said. “It’s been awhile. If he gets on the court he’s the type of kid that if he hits one or two he’s going to hit four or five. He’s just got that shooter’s mentality.
“He can be a huge key for us along the way.”