Wisconsin basketball media day notebook: Josh Gasser returns, new roles abound

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

It's a vastly different-looking Badgers squad after losing their entire starting frontcourt, but there's plenty of excitement surrounding the team with the return of Josh Gasser and the addition of six freshmen.

The Wisconsin basketball team held its annual media day Friday afternoon in the Kohl Center. As most media days go, the entire team was available for interviews for about an hour or so, which was followed by a Bo Ryan press conference. There's plenty of storylines heading into this season, and the team provided insights on most of them this afternoon.

And for the record... Bo Ryan was already in midseason form during his press conference, cracking jokes and going off on ridiculous tangents from talking about visually impaired players he's coached in the past to questioning Sam Dekker's actual weight. Don't ask how he wound up on those topics, I couldn't even tell ya.

Unusual offseason

Most years the Badger basketball team would just be starting up with preseason practices now, but thanks to an NCAA rule change the Badgers were able to fit in three extra weeks of practice before the season begins. The team also partook in a five-game exhibition tour in Canada during August, so UW has had more time to iron out the early season wrinkles and get the incoming freshmen acclimated quicker to a new program.

"It was great, especially for the young guys," guard Traevon Jackson said. "I felt like they were able to get their feet wet a little bit and to continue to see what a real type of game experience is like, especially with coach [Ryan] and how he is in game moments. And just for us to play together, get our camaraderie right as a team was good."

New faces all around

One of the things nearly every player touched on was how differently the team looks compared to last year's, particularly with its youthfulness. Much of that is due to the fact the Badgers brought six freshmen on board this year, and three of them — Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Vitto Brown — should have the opportunity to make significant impacts this year, and potentially even start.

It may be early, but Coach Ryan gave the freshmen crop pretty glowing remarks.

"This is probably one of the brightest groups of freshmen, collectively, that we've had," Ryan said. "Very astute, very perceptive, hungry and they're grasping a lot of things, and I think it's out of necessity."

"I mean, sometimes freshmen come in and they see all these guys in front of them and they feel they have no chance at getting minutes. We have several guys who know that if they continue to progress and do what we've asked of them, that they can get on the floor."

Gasser's health status

There's no question the Badgers sorely missed guard Josh Gasser last season, who lost out on the entire season due to a torn ACL, so he's been welcomed back with open arms. Gasser saw his first playing time since the injury during the Canadian summer tour, but although he's pleased with his progress, he's still readjusting to being back on the floor.

"I'm right where I expected [to be]," Gasser said. "I'd like to be completely 100 percent, playing at my peak and all that but that may be a little unrealistic. It still gets sore; there's still pain and stuff like that all the time, but I'm able to play and get better each day so that's the main thing."

"You kind of feel like a freshman all over again," Gasser added. "The game seems so much faster, everything's happening where I'm just kind of spinning a little bit. I need to prove myself again."

Gasser acknowledged how it's a process returning from a serious knee injury like this. He expected to have some growing pains in his return but is hopeful he'll be back to his old form by the start of the season.

When asked about playing in Canada, Gasser joked it was nice to see he could still play and added it was a big confidence boost to see he could rely on his knee and make cuts again.

Picking up the tempo?

There's been an apparent shift in strength from UW's frontcourt to its backcourt, given the losses of seniors Jared Berggren, Mike Brusewitz and Ryan Evans. In addition, the Badgers returned all key players in their backcourt and added some younger talent, particularly in freshman point guard Bronson Koenig.

So what does this mean for UW's style of play? Multiple players including Gasser, Jackson and Sam Dekker noted the Badgers may play a bit more of an uptempo game this year given the experience, depth and athleticism of the backcourt.

"Come game time, who knows what we're going to be doing, but you know, as of now we've been running a little bit more but still sticking to our principles," Dekker said.

In terms of potentially playing with smaller lineups this season, Dekker had a particularly interesting response:

"In our offense we don't really have positions," Dekker said. "We kind of just have spots that you go to. You just have to get up the court and fill a spot, you know, you just run stuff from there."

"If [Bo Ryan] goes small, we're still going to have guys posting up. You'll see Ben Brust posting up sometimes this year, who knows."

Different roles

More than anyone else, the Badgers may need Dekker and big man Frank Kaminsky to step into bigger roles this season. The loss of the entire starting frontcourt from a season ago leaves UW with a fairly inexperienced group of forwards. So while it would be nice if Hayes and Brown could make an early impact, Dekker and Kaminsky will be the most experienced guys down there.

While Dekker is technically a wing, he's a versatile player who can play a variety of positions and is arguably the most talented player on the team. This could be a breakout year for Dekker and the Badgers will certainly rely on him to do a lot more this season, but he doesn't feel any added pressure.

"I felt like I was a leader last year," Dekker said. "The guys took me in as a leader last year, as a guy that could be a key cog to what we did. And that's just something I'm going to do this year as well. I'm just going to be a key figure for our team and I'm going to try to be a good leader and lead by example with my play."

Even as just a sophomore you can tell Dekker has a great pulse on this team, and he's always very direct and specific with his answers. He even mentioned how last year's team didn't always have great chemistry and that's something he expects to be better this season.

"We're trying to get every single person better everyday and get our chemistry levels up," he said. "I think that may be the main thing this year is our chemistry. Last year we didn't have as much of that. There was a little bit of separation at times on the court and we can't have that this year, and I think we have a group that's pretty mature with that."

"There were times we didn't all play together, and that's going to happen with every team once in awhile but if you can cycle that out as much as possible, you'll be better."

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