Nov. 9, 2011
BY MIKE LUCAS
Wisconsin’s Ben Brust is equally adept at detailing the differences between a scorer and a shooter in basketball or outlining the similarities between Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart in NASCAR.
“He’s a unique kid,” said UW associate head coach Greg Gard.
That uniqueness extends to Brust’s potential role this season with the Badgers.
“He’s going to play and I think he’s going to play a lot,’’ Gard said. “Whether he’s in the starting line-up or coming off the bench, he’s definitely going to give us some offensive punch.’’
That uniqueness extends to Brust’s passion for NASCAR and his allegiance to Harvick.
“He’s talking a foreign language to us,’’ said Gard, speaking for the staff and Brust’s teammates.
“They laugh at me,’’ said Brust who has Harvick’s No. 29 flag hanging in his room.
By his own admission, Brust was one of them — a NASCAR hater — up until 18 months ago.
“My brother-in-law had it on TV and I was like, ‘What’s this doing on?’’’ Brust recalled. “I had no interest in it. I was like everyone on the team, ‘They just race around in circles’ blah, blah, blah.
“But I actually sat down with him and I started watching the race and asking him questions about it and I really got interested. And it just took off from there.’’
In turn, Twitter opened his eyes — and some doors — to the world of NASCAR. Brust became friends with Harvick’s business manager and Harvick has since begun following Brust on Twitter.
In late July, Brust attended the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. In mid-August, he saw Harvick win the Camping World Truck Series VFW 200 at the Michigan International Speedway.
Through Twitter, he has gotten to be friends with the former spotter of Dale Earnhardt and sportswriter Jim Utter, who covers NASCAR for the Charlotte Observer and ThatsRacin.com.
Along the way, Brust got to meet Harvick, along with his spotter.
“It’s just crazy how Twitter works,’’ Brust said, “that I was able to meet all these people.’’
There may even be a summer marketing internship with NASCAR in the works for Brust thanks to a connection that his brother-in-law has with the Roush Fenway Racing team.
“I never imagined it would open so many doors,’’ Brust said of his Twitter family.
Reaction has been varied at home: Hawthorn Woods, Ill.
“My mom thinks it’s crazy,’’ Brust said. “She doesn’t know what’s happened to me.’’
Nonetheless, Barb and John Brust agreed to take part in their son’s YouTube video depicting a Harvick pit stop. Brust’s title? “Tire changer and director.” The genesis for the video?
“I was just bored on the Fourth of July,’’ he said. “We were eating dinner, and we were talking about how I had become this big nut about NASCAR.’’
Brust is prouder of the video from Sunday’s Red-White Scrimmage. He had 22 points. His parents were present at the Kohl Center, and some NASCAR friends texted their support.
“It always helps your confidence to have a pretty good game,’’ said Brust, a 6-2 sophomore. “But in essence it was just a scrimmage. It didn’t count in the win-loss column. But it definitely helps.’’
Gard liked everything that he saw out of Brust — confirming what he already knew.
“I just liked his aggressiveness; he played with no fear,’’ Gard said. “His first shot was kind of a circus shot; he was driving to his left and shot it off one foot, but that gave him a little confidence.
“He showed a lot of the things that we had seen out of him in practices last year. If you give him space, he’ll shoot it and he’ll keep backing up and keep shooting it.
“Some of that is the scout team coming out. He’ll have to dial it in a little bit more. But I’d rather have him that way — gung-ho and firing — than having to encourage him to be aggressive.’’
Brust played a total of 45 minutes as a freshman. Appearing in 15 games, four in the Big Ten, he accounted for just 10 points on 4-of-16 shooting from the field; 2-of-10 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Gard felt Brust handled his orientation the right way, despite limited playing time and success.
“He learned; he kept his eyes and ears open,’’ Gard said. “He didn’t get caught up into thinking, ‘I’m coming out of high school as an all-state player and I need to play right away.’
“He understood that he had some work to do and some pretty good players in front of him.’’
The transition from high school sharp-shooter to college scout teamer was challenging.
“It was tough in the moment,’’ said Brust who averaged 25 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists his senior year at Mundelein High School; four times topping the 40-point mark in a game.
“You might have a good practice and you’d go home and you’d know that you still might not play despite however you played in practice. But it made me stronger and who I am as a player today.’’
While helping the starters prepare for an opponent, there were lessons to be learned.
“Taking advantage of opportunities is the key,’’ Brust said. “I don’t think I did the best job of that last year when I got mine. But I learned a lot from them and know what it feels like to be out there.’’
The off-season was also important to Brust’s development.
“He redefined his body a little more,’’ Gard said. “He got stronger and in better shape and just worked on his ball-handling and his game from that standpoint.
“After you go through it as a freshman, you’re kind of starry-eyed. You’re caught by surprise by a few things. Once you get into June of year two, there are no more surprises.
“You know what steps need to be taken and Ben has done that.’’
Brust credited Scott Hettenbach, the strength and conditioning coordinator for men’s basketball, for tuning up his engine and getting him ready for the physical demands.
“Everyone in this weight program gets stronger,’’ Brust agreed. “I lost some body fat and gained some muscle. You get stronger and your body changes and develops.’’
One thing hasn’t changed with Brust: he loves having the basketball in his hands. From this standpoint, then, what is the difference between a scorer and a shooter?
“A scorer can go to the rim and pull-up and knock it down from outside,’’ Brust said. “He can score in all different ways. A shooter is spotting up and can be a specialist coming off screens.
“I’ve always tried to think of myself as a scorer but I’ve always been labeled as a shooter. That’s why I’ve kept working on my game because I want to be more versatile than just a shooter.’’
Gard had his own viewpoint on Brust’s evolution.
“He’s gone from a spot-up shooter coming out of high school to now having more of a dribble game than we realized,’’ Gard said. “One of the best things he does now is attack with the dribble.
“He’s so quick with the dribble and he’s so quick off the ball. Coach (Bo Ryan) has mentioned that several times — his movement off the ball and how he comes flying off screens.
“Now, he’s starting to do the same things with the ball. He doesn’t look that quick until you’re on the floor with him and he can explode past you.
“I don’t think he’s going to drive and dunk on anybody. But he’s so good at getting runners and floaters off the glass. He has really worked on that and added it to his game.’’
If you ask Brust about taking the ball hard to the rim, he says, “The holes were there and I took them. I got there. If they’re there, I’m going to take them.”
If you ask him about his seemingly unlimited range on his jumper, he says, “It was there. If they sag off a little bit (defensively), I’m going to knock it down.’’
If you ask him about his energy, he says, “I’ve always been known as a high motor guy and I’d like to be — coming in and bringing energy in any way possible.’’
If you ask him about his decision-making on offense, he says, “I have to be consistent and make sure I take care of the ball and there are no mental lapses.’’
If you ask him about his quickness, he grins and says, “I don’t know about that. I’ve never been labeled as being quick. Maybe I am. Quick is new to my vocabulary.’’
If you ask him about his defense, he says, “When you get here as a freshman, you don’t know what the rules are. But you learn them and try to get as good as you can with them.’’
If you ask him about his role on this team, he says, “We’ll know in time what it is. I’m just trying to get better every day in practice.’’
The time trials get under way with Saturday’s exhibition opener.