MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- - 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.
Especially considering his 20th-ranked Badgers have a challenging opener, Friday night against St. John's in Sioux Falls, S.D.
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 NCAA tournament every year to go with five Big Ten titles. They went 23-12 last season and lost to Ohio State in the conference tournament title 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. ''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.''
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.''
Post minutes are available for the taking with last year's starters gone. When asked, Gard said that 6-8, 237-pound Vitto Brown and 6-7, 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.
Besides the return of Gasser, Wisconsin returns the solid backcourt 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.''
The Badgers are facing St. John's for the first time since improving to 3-0 in the all-time series with an 80-70 win in the opening round of the 2002 NCAA tournament.
The Red Storm haven't made the NCAAs since 2011, but appear to have the talent to make it back.
St. John's has 11 letterwinners, including five starters, back from last season's 17-16 team and welcomes freshman Rysheed Jordan, one of the most highly regarded high school point guards, to the fold.
Jordan may be St. John's highest profile freshman since Felipe Lopez back in the early 1990s. The 6-4 Philadelphia native was the No. 3 point guard and No. 17 overall prospect in ESPN's Top 100, and totaled 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting in two exhibition games.
"He's the best guard, the most explosive guard I've had in college and that includes Baron Davis," coach Steve Lavin said of his former star at UCLA. "He has made everybody better by the way he practices. He is going to be a very special player."
That means somebody's minutes will be cut and all the players say that will be just fine if it means wins and an NCAA tournament bid, something none of the current roster has experienced.
"Honest, nobody cares about minutes. We want to win. We want to win bad," said leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison, who missed the last six games last season because of a disciplinary suspension. "Rysheed is good but there are some other good players here - players who think we can win."
JaKarr Sampson was the Big East rookie of the year last season after averaging 14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds in filling the shoes of Moe Harkless, a first-round draft pick following his freshman season with the Red Storm.
Lavin said the team can be one of those that improves all season and becomes a factor in the conference come February.
"This can be one of those teams that figures it out as it goes along," he said.
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