It was, according to Bo Ryan, “the shortest answer I’ve ever given in the history of questions.”
The question was about the toughness, physicality and grit the eighth-ranked and undefeated University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team showed in grind-it-out victories over Virginia Wednesday on the road and state rival Marquette Saturday at the Kohl Center.
Ryan has been known to, um, ramble a bit when speaking with the media, but the UW coach’s response after his team’s hard-fought, 70-64 victory over the Golden Eagles was straight to the point. So why was UW able to play with such toughness this week against two teams that physically pushed it around a year ago?
“Josh Gasser,” Ryan said succinctly.
Josh Gasser, indeed. Of all the developments that have contributed to UW’s 10-0 start — Sam Dekker asserting his considerable talent on games, Trae Jackson becoming an efficient floor leader, Frank Kaminsky delivering important baskets and exquisite scoring balance — the most important might be that Gasser, the junior guard who missed last season following knee surgery, has infused the Badgers with a toughness that had been lacking.
Gasser’s leadership clearly has trickled down to the rank-and-file. The Badgers, who appeared to lack some toughness when they were scoring points in record fashion early in the season, responded with tough, gritty play against big, physical, defense-minded, Big Ten-type teams such as Virginia and Marquette.
“The guys saw what he went through last year and you can’t tell me that there’s not a guy in that locker room that didn’t take notice of the hours and the discipline and all the work that Josh put in,” Ryan said. “We’ve got some other guys out there that have a lot of grit, but I think you have to start somewhere, and that’s where it starts.”
Marquette was hurting for outside shooters, especially with Todd Mayo sitting out due to a one-game suspension, but it was powerful inside with 6-foot-11, 275-pound Chris Otule, 6-8, 290-pound Davante Gardner and 6-7, 230-pound Jamil Wilson. But the Badgers held their own under the basket and claimed the majority of the loose balls — hustle plays that helped them hold off the Golden Eagles down the stretch.
“I’ve always thought coach Ryan’s teams were tough and they were definitely the toughest team today,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said.
And the toughest guy on the toughest team was Gasser. Whether it was grabbing a rebound in traffic, playing defense on a bigger man or driving to the basket in situations where UW needed points, Gasser was an inspiration to his teammates.
“He just does so many little things that people don’t see in the box score,” Dekker said, recalling one play against Virginia when Gasser “fought over a few screens, the ball got batted around, he went and got it and got fouled and he turned to the bench, hit his chest and just got us into it again. He can turn games around with so many little things like that. He’s a great leader for us. He just brings a toughness and grit to the whole bunch that rubs off on all of us. When he brings that day in and day out, every practice and every game, it makes our team 10 times better just because he’s that leader that we can look to to get a big stop or get a big play or just get the crowd into it or get our team into it physically and mentally.”
That about sums it up when it comes to Gasser, whose 10.4 points per game make him one of five Badgers who average in double figures. But the most important part is he never, ever changes.
“He’s such a consistent guy,” Jackson said. “He’s one of the most consistent guys I’ve ever played with in terms of, he’s just going to give the same effort, the same intensity every day. Today, he had one of those huge rebounds. He went up against three of the four big guys and grabbed it and ... I was like, ‘Man, he’s tough.’ It’s good to have that on our team.”
UW is like Gasser in that its toughness never wavers. The Badgers have led at halftime of every game and only once — at UW-Green Bay — did they even give up the lead in the second half.
Now, the Badgers are 10-0 with the toughest part of a very difficult non-conference schedule behind them. That record represents the second-best start in modern school history.
Just as important as the record, however, is how the Badgers got there. They’ve won in a variety of ways, shootouts and defensive battles, blowouts and nail-biters. Mostly, they’ve shown the kind of toughness, physicality and grit they’ll need in the Big Ten.
“It’s exactly what we needed to do,” Gasser said. “It’s something that we kind of lacked the first couple of games, but that’s understandable in some respects. Last year (against Marquette) I think we got beat on the boards way too much. To see it pretty much even here was nice. ... Overall, this week was great for us. We won some grind-it-out games, which is what we’re going to need to do come Big Ten season.”
With Gasser showing the way, the Badgers now know they can win that type of game.