Finding out Ben Brust had a deep, legit passion for NASCAR was basically the most perfect revelation in the world. On fire or ice cold, the one thing Brust always gave to Wisconsin was 100 percent effort, often at breakneck speeds.
Brust was so eager to make a play early in his Badger career that he often found himself a bad situations. Many times he'd zoom toward the basket with good intentions, but get caught in the air with nowhere to go -- a basic basketball no-no.
His overzealous nature merely set the stage for the remarkable transformation that was to come, which is really the true joy of watching a true student-athlete grow over a four or five-year career. Brust got better ... at everything.
The 6'1" shooting guard from Hawthorn Woods, Ill. came to Madison in a roundabout way. A 25-ppg scorer as a senior at Mundelein High School, Brust was a consensus three-star prospect when he first signed with Iowa and then-head coach Todd Lickliter. Upon Lickliter's firing, Brust looked elsewhere, but not without a bit of controversy. Schools like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northwestern had to petition on Brust's behalf for a Big Ten rule change that would release the high school senior from his National Letter of Intent. After initially being denied, Brust won his appeal and declared for the Badgers on May 7, 2010. He was the final addition to UW's chaotic 2010 recruiting class.
Admittedly, Brust was not one of my favorite players during his first couple of seasons. He was undersized, too one-dimensional, and those aforementioned bonehead plays were frustrating to watch. Worst of all, he was a sieve on defense, as associate head coach Greg Gard explained:
"He didn't want to rebound," Gard said. "He wanted to hang out on the three-point line. He didn't do much off the dribble. He didn't know what the other end of the floor was about."
Yet there was always a spark about Brust. I remember him coming in for the final minute of an 82-56 blowout win over Michigan State as a freshman and draining a cold-blooded 3-pointer from the wing with one second remaining. Was he the Honey Badger? Dude did not care. He was always ready to score.
Needless to say, Brust slowly grew on me more than any other Badger player I can remember. He began his sophomore year in grand style, hitting 29-of-59 treys in the first 10 games coming off the bench, including two separate record-setting games of seven made 3-pointers between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We started to see Brust's defense and patience improve.
The buzzcut assassin closed the year just as strong as he started it, with a flurry of huge 3-point bombs in classic tournament clashes with Vanderbilt and Syracuse. The heart-breaking loss to the Orange was a harbinger of things to come; I know Brust's role in UW's comeback earned an admirer in one, Mr. Andrew Rosin:
"Brust might have had his best three minutes as a Badger. The Badgers sank five more threes. Brust hit two of them, assisted on two more, and added a defensive rebound just because. Heck, my dad and I went beyond the high-five when Syracuse called time out. We Jordan-shrugged. Brust was on that sort of a roll. We all know the end result. Isolation in college breaks your heart. But that was the day I became a fan of Ben Brust. Because he almost beat that devil magic."
Little did we know how much of a rock Brust would become for the program over the next two years.
|Personal bests (single game)|
|191 (twice)||29||12 (twice)||6 (twice)||5|
Sadly, Brust endured several hardships before the start of his junior season, including the passing of his cousin. His hunger to seize the day just grew larger, however.
With a move into the starting lineup, Brust made the leap. Though Brust led the team in scoring (11.1 ppg), people marveled at his improved rebounding ability most of all. Brust was able to take the kinetic energy that made him a liability early in his career and channel it into being a voracious glass man ... sometimes to a fault. You would occasionally see him careening into a bigger teammate who had better position. More often than not, though, it was the fiery competitor Brust who snatched the ball away.
True to form, Brust rarely committed fouls and got better on defense again. He showed a willingness to get on the floor after loose balls. He learned to go to his left more often and showcased his ability to set up his teammates. As a result, Brust proved to be an iron man for Wisconsin, playing 1,518 minutes and garnering back-to-back honorable mention All-Big Ten honors his last two seasons. His confidence was growing and you could see it in his wide-shouldered strut.
* * *
As he became a more well-known player, Brust was able to parlay Wisconsin's success into opportunities outside of basketball as well. Through interactions on Twitter (he's @BenBrust), Brust became friends with various NASCAR personalities over the years, including Kevin Harvick and his wife DeLana.
Next thing we knew, Brust was spotting for Brendan Gaughan at the Johnsonville Sausage 200 race in 2013. Brust became known as the No. 1 racing geek in the world of college basketball. If you had to guess where Brust's next move would take him after graduation, you'd have to consider the possibility he winds up in the racing industry instead of pro hoops.
Some people might be worried about showing off a wacky passion in that way, but what I grew to like about Brust was that he didn't take himself too seriously. I believe the basketball team's chemistry the last few years benefited from having a personality like Ben's in a leadership role. Brust seemed like he was just a nice kid who loved his university, something B5Q's own hockey editor, Andy Johnson, echoed.
"I love that Ben Brust follows other Wisconsin athletic teams," Johnson said. "Once in a while on random Friday/Saturday nights I'll get a tweet from Benny asking what channel the hockey Badgers are on, or how they are playing. Kind of cool."
Along with his NASCAR obsession, Brust's most enduring legacy will be his half-court shot to send last year's Michigan game into overtime -- and rightly so. Not only was the heave well defended by UM's Caris LeVert, but the 45-foot swish answered a dagger by Tim Hardaway, Jr. seconds earlier. For his part, Brust had a good feeling all along:
"When Mike [Brusewitz] got the ball, I made my cut, and he led me perfectly. He put it in my pocket, I got squared up without wasting any time. I knew as soon as it left my hands that it was pretty good."
The moment I will never forget is Brust's reaction, an immediate leap into his teammates' arms as the Kohl Center crowd descended in pandemonium. Realizing the game was not actually won yet and regrouping was a tall order, so it's no surprise people overlook what happened next. Brust, however, was the hero of an otherwise uneventful extra session when his steal and 3-pointer in the final minute put the Badgers ahead for good.
Most other people would be satisfied letting a huge shot like that define their career. But luckily for the Badgers, Brust wasn't done yet.
Brust upped his scoring average again as a senior, became even more automatic from the free throw stripe and perfected a couple of moves that made Wisconsin's offense unstoppable. The first was a unique maneuver where Brust would penetrate into the lane, pick up his dribble (seemingly stuck), and turn his back to the basket looking to pass, only to pivot back toward the rim and release a consistent fadeaway mid-range jumper. INSTA-DAGGER. The second move was the delightfully effective shot fake from 3-point land which seemed to baffle opponents throughout the NCAA Tournament. Brust was finally a complete all-around player.
Granted, Brust could still be streaky. When he struggled to find his outside shooting touch in mid-January, UW dropped five of six.
As Brust's career entered its final lap, though, we watched him catch fire. He had saved his best for last, ensuring that he earned his due as an integral part of the best Badger team of the modern era. Brust shot an absurd 22-for-45 (49%) on threes during the 2014 postseason, obliterating UW's single-season record for 3-pointers in the process. Four of those makes helped sink Oregon in Milwaukee, including the one that set a new program record for career 3-pointers. Brust skipped Jon Bryant 2.0 and went straight to being Jon Bryant 3.0. Or, you know, Brust 1.0.
And as a bonus? The tournament run introduced the nation to Team Brust. I think we are all better for it.
In February, Brust became the 38th Wisconsin player to score 1,000 career points in a win over Indiana, finally resting above names like Brian Butch and Marcus Landry in 28th place on the school's all-time scoring ladder with 1,148 points. Perhaps Brust will still be underrated historically, but looking at the numbers, it will be hard to forget him.
|Wisconsin records held*^|
|CAREER - Most 3-pointers made^^||235|
|SEASON - Most 3-pointers made (2013-14)**||96|
|SEASON - Second-most 3-pointers made (2012-13)||79|
|SEASON - Most 3-pointers attempted (2013-14)***||244|
|SEASON - Minutes played (2013-14)||1,318|
|SEASON - Games played (tie, 2013-14)||38|
|SEASON - Games started (tie, 2013-14)||38|
|SINGLE GAME - Most 3-pointers made||7 (twice)|
|SINGLE GAME - Most 3-pointers made without a miss****||7 (2011 vs. UNLV)|
*Brust is second all-time in FT% (min. 50 att.) behind Brian Good with an .899 (80-89) mark in 2013-14. His career FT% of 82.69 (129-156) would rank fourth all-time if he had met the minimum (175 att.)
^Ranks 10th in career assist-to-turnover ratio (min. 100 assists) with 156:95
^^Also second in career attempts (606) behind Michael Finley
**Also second all-time with 79 made threes in 2012-13
***Also fourth all-time with 203 attempts in 2012-13
****Tied a Big Ten record
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