When Josh Gasser went down with his season-ending ACL injury this year, Badger fans contemplated what player would step up for a team then-devoid of starting experience in the backcourt.
Names like redshirt freshman George Marshall and sophomore Traevon Jackson were thrown around as the next man up to become that solid glue-guard that Wisconsin so desperately needed.
But, after eight games, the one name that was seemingly passed over by the perceiving eyes of fans and the media alike has been the unexpected constant in Gasser’s absence.
Who is he? Here’s a hint. He’s shooting threes from somewhere by the Nitty Gritty and outhustling opponents on the boards, even though he’s just 6-foot-1.
Yes, Ben Brust, the junior guard out of Hawthorn Woods, Ill., has become the steadiest producer at guard for the Wisconsin Badgers in this young season.
“The guy works hard,” assistant coach Lamont Paris said. “I’m not surprised he’s had success. … He provides a spark for us, he’s very fast and creates a shot for himself and others.”
While Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan tries to decide who to start at the point guard spot, Brust has remained the constant at the No. 2 spot in the starting lineup.
Long known throughout the conference as a lethal threat from long range – Brust has tied the school record of seven three-pointers in a single game twice in his career at UW – the guard has found a new niche in his play this year that has fans and players alike raving, hustle.
There’s always been at least one kind of “blue collar” kind of guy on a Ryan-coached team at Wisconsin. For a long time, it was always senior forward Mike Bruesewitz the media couldn’t get enough of, as stories and media personalities alike voiced repetitively how the red mop-top player was representative of Ryan’s program with his scrappy play.
Now, it’s a different tune they sing. There was a moment in Sunday’s game against California where Brust went up for a tough lay-up between two defenders and barely missed the shot.
As a Cal player coasted down the court in transition, Brust turned on the motor and stealthily poked the ball away, as the turnover resulted in an easy transitional layup for Wisconsin.
It’s plays like those that have defined the season for Brust so far. The hustle aspect of his game has helped the junior lead the conference in rebounds per game at one point – he’s currently ranked third with 7.5 a game.
“When that ball goes up he goes, I mean he just goes,” California head coach Mike Montgomery said Sunday following his team’s loss. “He just runs full tilt boogey and gets the ball.”
It’s a similar sentiment another head coach that faced Wisconsin this season had regarding Brust.
“What he really surprised me with was his offensive rebounding. He goes so hard and crashes the offensive glass,” said Cornell head coach Bill Courtney following his team’s 73-40 loss at the Kohl Center Nov. 18. “If you have a small guard on him, he does a great job of getting in there and getting to the glass. I think that was the most surprising thing from Ben.”
There was a stretch at one point this season where Brust recorded three double-doubles in points and rebounds in four games this season that prompted Bo Ryan to simply reply “What the (heck) is going on”? at a press conference.
Brust currently leads the team with four double-doubles on the season with his last coming against Nebraska-Omaha on Tuesday in a 15 point, 10 rebound performance.
With Jackson and Marshall both showing signs of growing pains in their transition to bigger minutes in their first season as legitimate contributors to Ryan’s squad, Brust will have to continue his solid style of play in his all-around game to buoy the Badgers offense until the younger players find their own.
Brust will have to focus on staying consistent this season if the Badgers hope to continue their winning ways. The more talented teams of the Big Ten will chase Brust around the arc, trying their best to force him to shoot off the dribble rather than the catch.
And don’t expect Brust to have double-doubles all season. The teams he’s recorded them against so far are less than stellar – Southeastern Louisiana, Cornell, Presbyterian and Nebraska-Omaha – but the new aspect of the player has been inspiring to say the least.
“Ben’s been huge,” senior forward Ryan Evans said. “We’ve needed him to come through and knock down some shots for us and he’s done that. That’s something that will need to carry on to the Big Ten season for us to be successful.”