Jan. 25, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- There was something about Josh Gasser's game that made UW associate head coach Greg Gard take notice. This was after Gard saw Gasser for the first time in the 2007 WIAA state basketball tournament. Gasser was then a freshman and the starting point guard at Port Washington.
"He was a skinny, scrawny, 5-foot-11 guard," Gard recalled of Gasser, now a 6-3, 185-pound freshman who has started 13 games for the Badgers. "He just had a toughness about him. You didn't know then if he was going to be good enough to get here at this level. But you knew he had a presence."
The Port Washington Pirates, 16-9 overall, were an unlikely candidate to get to state after finishing below .500 in the North Shore Conference. But they got hot and Gasser scored the last five points in overtime to upset Pewaukee in the sectional finals and punch their ticket to Madison.
"That was a big accomplishment for our school," Gasser said.
It was Port Washington's first trip to the tournament in 81 years.
Or, since the Pirates won the 1936 Class B championship.
"We played good defense, took good shots and played hard," Gasser said.
Central casting could not have come up with a better prospect for the Badgers.
In the Division 2 semifinals, Port Washington defeated Wisconsin Dells, 64-48. Mike Burmersch had 18 points, Chris Prom had 15 and Jon DeBoer and Gasser had 12 each for the Pirates.
"He doesn't get shaken up at all," Port Washington coach John Bunyan said of Gasser, the lone freshman in a starting lineup that also featured three seniors and one junior. Gard came away from the game thinking the same thing - "He doesn't get rattled" - even after Monroe beat the Pirates in the state finals.
"It's a matter of time with young guys," Gard said, "to see if they're physical attributes will catch up with what they can do mentally and some of the toughness they present.
"Looking at Josh, if he doesn't grow, if he doesn't get any better, the thinking was then that he'd be a real tough kid at a Division II or Division III college. But he grew and he got better.
"He understood what it took to play at a very high level and had a lot of success in high school. Port Washington kind of went from a wrestling school to a basketball school during his tenure."
Gasser laughed when reminded of that stereo-typing.
"It still is kind of a wrestling school," he said. "Basketball was definitely second in the winter sports. But it's awesome to see how basketball has developed in Port Washington."
That would also be the storyline for Gasser, whose development and exposure on the AAU circuit generated all kinds of recruiting traffic by the time he reached his senior year with the Pirates.
"He had a presence in more than one sport and that helped him develop, too," Gard said. "He was a very good quarterback who missed his senior year because of an ankle injury. They didn't have near as good of a season as they would have had he been there as their leader, and that speaks to the intangibles."
The Wisconsin coaching staff may love the parts of Gasser's game that you can't quantify, but Bo Ryan and company had to smile at his "measureables" last Sunday at Northwestern.
With 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, Gasser became the first player in Wisconsin's 113-year basketball history to record a triple-double.
The Big Ten's first triple-double in conference play since 2001 and the first by a freshman since a player named Earvin "Magic" Johnson in 1977 has placed Gasser among elite company.
True to his selfless nature, the numbers are not what motivates him.
"The triple-double is great, but the numbers aren't that important to me," Gasser added. "I've had games where I don't make any stats but I still feel like I played well, so as long as the team is winning, that's all that matters."
"I never once expected for this to happen, but we also got the win which is most important," Gasser said after playing in front of two busloads of friends and family who made the trip to Evanston from Port Washington.
Dating back to when he first played quarterback in the fifth grade, Gasser always loved football. He operated out of a Wing-T at Port Washington and started on the varsity team his junior year.
"As a quarterback, you have to be a leader," he said. "Same as a point guard. There's a physicality and a toughness that comes into play transferring from football to basketball."
Meanwhile, Tyler Selk also remembered seeing Gasser play as a freshman in the 2007 state tournament. Selk was coaching an AAU team, the Wisconsin Swing, and contacted Gasser.
"Josh's personality is that he kind of blends into the background," Selk said. "He gets involved in the conversation but he doesn't have to be at the center of it. That's the way he was as a kid."
That's the way, Selk suggested, he also played.
Selk had an eye for such talent.
In addition to leading Randolph to a couple of state titles in 1996 and 1998, Selk went on to have an outstanding career at UW-Platteville. He played his freshman season on a national championship team coached by Bo Ryan.
"I really didn't know anything about his program but he gave me a big opportunity to come and play for him," Gasser said of Selk. "I couldn't have asked for a better AAU coach. He ran the same stuff we're running now and helped me out through the process. He made me a better player and person."
Selk knew what kind of kids Ryan and Gard recruited.
"Great character kids," Selk said.
So he knew Gasser was a perfect fit.
"As Josh changed physically and came into his own as a player," said Selk, who's an assistant coach at Waunakee High School, "he started to stand out on the floor."
Selk remembered a matchup against a Chicago-based AAU team which was loaded with studs, including the Illini duo of Jereme Richmond and Meyers Leonard, and Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr.
"They thought they were going to intimidate us and some of the things they did in the open court and above the rim were pretty impressive," Selk said. "But they just never rattled Josh. Early in the game, they turned us over a few times and got a few breakaways.
"But we were always right there with them and then Josh took over the game. I don't even know that he scored that much. But he started to demand the ball and he single-handedly broke their press and got us to where we needed to be offensively. We won going away."
What kind of scouting report did Selk pass along to Ryan? "I told him, `You're going to love him, gotta have him, he's perfect for your system, he doesn't waver,"' Selk said. "That's just his personality."
So how would Gard evaluate Gasser's transition to the Badgers and the Big Ten?
"As a freshman, you're more than likely going to have a Dow Jones season," he said. "Some games you're going to look like a million dollars. Some games you're going to look like a nickel.
"For Josh, the key is to handle it mentally so that he's not on a roller coaster. And he's done a great job of that by just staying calm and cool. You have a hard time rattling him.
"Even when you try to get under his skin at practice, even when you try to needle him a little bit and see if you can get him to react, he just gives it back and kind of smiles. I think he gets more frustrated with himself and performing to what his own expectations are.
"We knew that he would have toughness and moxie and no problem adjusting to the physicality. His shooting has to improve, but that will come in the offseason when he gets about 10,000 reps. His release will quicken up and he will become more consistent with his shot."
Ryan has not been discouraged. On the contrary, he's encouraged by his growth potential.
"The main thing with Josh is that nothing affects him," he said. "He doesn't get too high, he doesn't get too low. He's level-headed. He's also good with the ball, and good defensively. He has picked up our rules very quickly and that's why I've played him."
No matter how you may define toughness, it's one characteristic that Ryan covets and Gasser possesses. "He's not going to back away from anybody or anything," Ryan said. "When the game is physical, you certainly like to have a guy like that on the court."
Has Gasser ever been rattled?
"Not really this year," he said, "but when I was younger, just a little bit. Nothing big. I kind of showed it more back then. I've learned to keep it to myself otherwise it's going to rub off on others."
When asked who has had the biggest influence on shaping this type of mindset, Gasser listed his parents, his teammates and his coaches. "It's a long list and it keeps growing," he said. As does he.