MADISON, Wis. – Josh Gasser's legs are gradually coming back on the court, though the Wisconsin guard's upper body is probably as strong as ever.
The Badgers are easing Gasser back from a left knee injury that knocked him out for all of the 2012-13 campaign. But the combo guard's return is a welcome sight for coach Bo Ryan.
"The Big Ten is such a physical conference," said the 6-foot-3 Gasser, a versatile defender. "You have to bring it every night. I have to be quick and also strong to cover the big fellows."
Stationing Gasser on the blocks probably isn't in Ryan's master plan, though the Badgers do have to re-stock up front with Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz all gone.
Sam Dekker, a 6-foot-7 forward who averaged 9.6 points off the bench as a freshman, has the athletic ability and shooting touch (39 percent from 3-point range) to be a star up front.
Ryan will figure it out. He always does. Since Ryan arrived in Madison in 2002, the Badgers have made the tournament every year to go with five Big Ten titles.
Here are five things to watch with Wisconsin getting ready for the season opener Nov. 8 against St. John's in Sioux Falls, S.D.:
GASSER'S GAME: Known especially for his defensive prowess, Gasser was primed to take over the point last year when he tore an ACL late in training camp. He's itching to contribute again after making 66 starts over his first two seasons. Associate head coach Greg Gard said Gasser isn't completely back, but he's getting stronger. Getting any sort of contribution from Gasser, a career 39 percent shooter from 3-point range, will help. "Josh always has gone 100 miles per hour, the way he attacks everything," Gard said this week. "Those are the things people don't see — all the sweat and time put in to try to come back from an injury like that."
TOP DEKKER: The sophomore jokingly cajoled teammates during a recent free-throw shooting drill. He did a mini-jig while working his way up the court during down time at practice. Sporting a loose personality when he's not running the floor, Dekker figures to be a matchup nightmare in between the whistles for opponents. During Wisconsin's Canadian exhibition tour in August, Dekker led the team in points (19.4) and rebounds (8.2). Ryan offered a checklist of attributes for Dekker to improve including footwork and defense. "A list of about 20 more things, but I'll stop there," Ryan said at the team's media day. "He's in the process of really tinkering with being pretty special."
NEW FACES: Post minutes are available for the taking with last year's starters gone. When asked, Gard said that 6-foot-8, 237-pound Vitto Brown and 6-foot-7, 250-pound Nigel Hayes are two freshmen best prepared to adjust to the physicality of the game. Now they've got to adjust to the mental side. "That takes time, and it's going to take experience and reps," Gard said. "We understand that. But those two guys physically are at a point where they're ready to go."
NEW ROLES: Maybe Brown and Hayes will work their way into major minutes in the frontcourt. Seven-foot junior Frank Kaminsky, who averaged 10 minutes a game, last year, figures to take over at center. Six-foot-10 Evan Anderson, who played even more sparingly last season, is the only other player on the roster taller than 6-foot-8.
ON GUARD: There's much less to worry about in the backcourt. Besides the return of Gasser, Wisconsin returns the solid duo of Ben Brust, last year's leading scorer (11.1 points, 38 percent 3-point shooting) and Traevon Jackson (6.9 points), who took over the point last season after Gasser went down. As usual, defense is the top priority. Wisconsin held opponents last year to 55.9 points and 39 percent shooting. "We create match-up problems and we can guard bigger guys, me and Josh," Jackson said. "We've been able to get out and go and create for each other a lot."
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP
AP freelance writers Jim Hoehn and Tammy Madsen contributed to this story.