As Wisconsin point guard Josh Gasser writhed on the court under the basket clutching his left knee during practice 10 days ago, teammate George Marshall watched from the bench in shock.
Only after Gasser's MRI results confirmed the next day he had torn his ACL did Marshall begin considering the implications for himself.
Suddenly, Marshall is the leading candidate to start at point guard for Wisconsin, a big responsibility for a redshirt freshman who has yet to play a minute in college and was expecting to ease his way into the rotation as a backup to Gasser. Sophomore combo guard Traevon Jackson will also log minutes at point guard and lethal outside shooter Ben Brust could play the position in an emergency, but Marshall figures to be in the starting lineup for Wisconsin's season opener Sunday against Southeastern Louisiana.
"As soon as we found out Josh tore his ACL, I immediately realized my role was going to change," Marshall said. "Josh going down is a tough loss for our team, but I have to look at it as an opportunity. I have the responsibility to step in and fill that role."
If Wisconsin is going to finish in the top four in a loaded Big Ten as it has in each of coach Bo Ryan's first 11 seasons in Madison, then the biggest key will probably be how smoothly Marshall adapts to his increased role.
The Badgers are deep and experienced in the frontcourt with standout senior Jared Berggren returning at center and highly touted freshman Sam Dekker pushing seniors Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz for minutes at both forward spots. Brust's emergence as a deep threat last season made Ryan comfortable moving Gasser from shooting guard to his more natural point guard position, but Gasser's knee injury leaves Marshall with the first crack at filling the shoes of All-American point guard Jordan Taylor.
Even though Marshall isn't the efficient scorer and mistake-free playmaker Taylor was or the rugged defender and vocal leader Gasser was, he boasts some skills the other two lack. Not only is the 5-foot-11 Chicago native quicker and more explosive off the dribble than either Taylor or Gasser, he also can score more ways, whether at the rim, behind the arc or via a consistently accurate mid-range jumper.
"His mid-range jump shot is the best part of his game," Wisconsin assistant coach Lamont Paris said. "Because of his ability to change direction, his explosive speed and his burst, he can really be a spark for us when he figures out when to use it and when to attack. But those are things that take time. George will be thrown to the fire pit, so he's going to have to learn that on the fly."
In some ways, Marshall is more ready for this role than others would be because he has been groomed to be a college point guard most of his life.
George Marshall (Courtesy of Wisconsin Athletics)Since Marshall's dad played in college for Bowling Green, Marshall was introduced to basketball at a young age. He watched the Michael Jordan-era Bulls with his dad as a toddler, began playing competitive basketball by age seven and emerged as one of Chicago's top point guard prospects by the end of junior high.
A four-year starter at Brooks College Prep in high school, Marshall averaged at least 15 points and five assists per game every season. As a senior, he returned from a hand injury in February to lead his team to the prestigious Chicago Public League Championship, sinking the game-winning shot with four seconds left in the semifinals and scoring a game-high 23 points in the title game.
Wisconsin first began recruiting Marshall late in his sophomore year and invited him to visit the campus early in fall of his junior year. Impressed by the Badgers' winning pedigree, the success of point guards Taylor and Trevon Hughes and the festive atmosphere in Madison that weekend after the Badgers football team beat Ohio State, Marshall chose Wisconsin over the likes of Baylor, Marquette and Arizona, among others.
With Taylor playing 30-plus minutes per game as a senior and Gasser, Brust and Jackson also commanding backcourt minutes, the Wisconsin staff suggested to Marshall that he redshirt as a freshman. The idea of voluntarily sitting out didn't appeal to Marshall at all at first, but he begrudgingly accepted his fate by the first week of the regular season.
"At first it was really tough," Marshall said. "I felt I could be out there, but I knew there was an All-American ahead of me. I thought about the reality of the minutes I would get and the benefits of having an extra year, and I decided redshirting would be the best decision."
What impressed the coaching staff most about Marshall was his attitude once he decided to sit out. He added muscle in the weight room, improved the consistency of his jump shot and took advantage of the opportunity to be Taylor's understudy, guarding him relentlessly on the scout team and peppering him with questions about what he could do better afterward.
"George brought his lunch pail every single day," Paris said. "He was going against a player who was one of our best point guards ever, who was stronger than him and who was more experienced than him, but George rolled up his sleeves and guarded him hard. Some days Jordan got the best of him. Other days, he frustrated Jordan a little bit and made him work hard for his points. But the way he went about it every single day was the most impressive thing."
Taylor was impressed enough with Marshall's potential that he joked after the season his protege would make Wisconsin fans forget all about him in a couple years. Marshall chuckles at that, but he has played well enough in practice that the coaching staff has no intention of lowering its expectations for the program this season just because Gasser is unavailable.
In a closed-door scrimmage against DePaul last week, Marshall started and ran the team capably. He performed well for the victorious team in Wisconsin's intrasquad scrimmage on Sunday as well, sinking four 3-pointers and finishing with 14 points, two assists and two rebounds in 28 minutes.
Although Ryan has not formally named Marshall the starter for Sunday's season opener, he's preparing as though he'll be in the lineup. He knows he'll be the most unproven player in a veteran-laden starting lineup, but he's confident he'll prove to skeptics that he can thrive despite the increased responsibility.
"With the loss of Jordan Taylor, point guard was going to be a question mark and with Josh going out, the question mark will remain even more," Marshall said. "I think I have a lot to prove, but I'm a very confident player. I want to show people we won't miss a beat."
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