MADISON, Wis. Middle-aged men cursed under their breath at the sight of the scrawny fifth grader attempting to participate in their pick-up basketball games. They did not understand that, even at 11 years old, Mike Bruesewitz wanted to play and win just as badly as them.
Bruesewitz, while clearly not yet possessing the same physical attributes as the other players, continued to show up at Litchfield High School in Minnesota every Wednesday and Sunday at 6 p.m. for adult open gym. His father, Rob, would play, while Mike would stand on the sideline honing his dribbling or shooting, waiting for a chance to join in.
When players' stamina waned and teams were short on bodies, Mike inserted himself into the lineup, much to the dismay of others.
"When you're in fifth grade, playing against 45-, 50-year-old guys, some of them aren't too happy that you're on the floor with them," Bruesewitz says. "There are some guys that will ice you out and won't pass you the ball and get mad. If I wanted to play with those guys, I had to do everything else but score."
The men soon realized that Bruesewitz's willingness to embrace other facets of basketball actually helped them win games. It proved to be a lesson that stuck with both Bruesewitz and his parents.
Hustle plays help a team succeed, and someone on every team needs to provide that lift.
Why not Bruesewitz?
"There's an old saying that it doesn't take any skill to hustle," says Mike's father, Rob Bruesewitz. "He's just always been a full-speed, real intense kind of guy. You try to encourage that."
Mike Bruesewitz, now a 6-foot-6 junior forward in Wisconsin's basketball program, has become known for his energetic style of play and willingness to stick his neck into a scrum for rebounds and loose balls.
Bruesewitz learned at an early age that not every player would be a superstar scorer. By rebounding, passing and setting screens, he could still help a team win, which always has been his ultimate goal.
"Losing is probably the worst thing in the world to me," Bruesewitz says. "You don't want to talk to me after a loss, that's for sure."
But this season has been Bruesewitz's most trying as a basketball player because as talented as he is in other areas of the sport, Wisconsin has needed his ability to shoot the ball and score to win. For nearly two months, those shots didn't fall many weren't even close and Bruesewitz couldn't help but blame himself for some of the team's losses.
"I'm my own worst critic by far," he says. "I think I'm harder on myself than any coach has ever been on me. I expect to play at a high level all the time. I'm kind of a perfectionist that way. I was trying to do anything I could to help my team win. But sometimes you need a little bit of scoring, and I wasn't able to provide that."
Through all his struggles, Bruesewitz has relied on the one constant in his game the ability to hustle while waiting for the shots to drop.
Now, as fourth-seeded Wisconsin (26-9) prepares to play top-seeded Syracuse (33-2) Thursday in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, it appears Bruesewitz's hard work and faith in himself is beginning to pay off.
Slump is a word in sports that indicates temporary failure. For a time, Bruesewitz began to wonder if his inability to make shots would become permanent. At the very least, it certainly felt everlasting.
On Jan. 12, Bruesewitz played one of his finest games of the season, making all four of his 3-point attempts during Wisconsin's 67-62 victory against Purdue. The victory snapped Purdue's 26-game home-court winning streak and helped turn around the Badgers' season. They had entered the game just 1-3 in Big Ten play.
But somewhat inexplicably, Bruesewitz's shooting went into a tailspin. He closed the season 2 for 28 on 3-point attempts and didn't make a 3 in eight consecutive games. Wisconsin lost four games during his shooting skid, and Bruesewitz shot 1 for 13 in those contests on 3-pointers.
Bruesewitz didn't feel a difference in his shot, but he came in before each practice to attempt 250 3-pointers with a team manager anyway. When the games started, all the repetitions in the world didn't seem to matter.
"It's just frustrating," Bruesewitz says. "Just knowing that shots aren't falling, especially when you put in all the time and effort. It's really frustrating when you know you spent so many hours in the gym, getting reps up and everything. Nothing seems to be going your way."
This season, Bruesewitz is shooting just 29.8 percent on 3-point tries (25 for 84) and 39.5 percent from the field. A year ago, he made 32.3 percent of his 3s (20 for 62) but shot 47.1 percent from the field.
Despite the shooting struggles, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan continued to have faith in Bruesewitz and started him in every game. Although Bruesewitz wasn't scoring, he made up his mind to play good defense, pass and rebound.
"I tried not to let it affect the rest of my game," Bruesewitz says. "I think I did a pretty good job with that."
His parents once again reminded Bruesewitz about the values of staying positive and helping his team. Bruesewitz grew up the youngest of four siblings in a hockey family and in that sport players earn points for assists.
"What he remembers is Wayne Gretzky who always favored the assist over the goal," says Mike's mom, Joanne Wesley. "Michael, he likes an assist. That's just kind of how he grew up thinking is that an assist is really playing team sports."
Still, Rob could sense Mike's exasperation at his inability to make shots.
"It bothers him a lot," Rob says. "More than he'll let on. But just because your shot isn't dropping doesn't mean you stop hustling. You don't stop boxing out and rebounding, you don't stop bringing your teammates up from the bench. You're a leader with hustle, and enthusiasm is contagious."
Rob noted that even the best players in the world sometimes endure shooting slumps. He recently read an article about Kevin Love, an NBA all-star in Minnesota, who went through a stretch in February in which he shot just 3 for 20 on 3-point tries.
"I thought about sending that to Michael," Rob says.
As it turned out, Bruesewitz wouldn't need it.
Mike Bruesewitz says that if a college basketball player can't get excited about March Madness, he must not be human.
When Wisconsin earned its No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, Bruesewitz spoke openly about his desire to break his shooting slump in the biggest moment of the season, and he had confidence he could accomplish that goal based on past success.
A year ago, as a mop-topped redhead he has since shaved it off Bruesewitz played some of his best basketball at Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament, averaging 8.7 points in three games.
This year, he wasted little time in finding his groove again.
During Wisconsin's first tournament victory against Montana in Albuquerque, N.M., Bruesewitz drilled two 3-pointers, including one that danced around the rim before trickling through the net. Perhaps it was a sign from the basketball gods that the slump was through because two days later, he made two more 3s in a 60-57 victory against Vanderbilt.
"I guess it was a little relief," Bruesewitz says. "I got my smile back on the floor and just played a little more care-free, a little more free flowing. I wasn't so frustrated and in my head about knocking down shots."
Suddenly, the guy who hadn't made a 3-pointer since Feb. 9 was one of the Badgers' most dangerous long-range threats, giving Wisconsin more hope for a memorable NCAA tournament run.
"I think every single one of us coming into the tournament knew we could rely on Mike," Badgers point guard Jordan Taylor says. "I heard the stat after the game that he hadn't hit a 3 since February 9, and I don't think anybody on our team knew that because Mike is just the kind of guy that's going to come out and play hard and not really show that he's slumping like that. When you've got an attitude like that, you can really break out of it at any time. He broke out at a huge time for us."
Ryan, Bruesewitz's coach, was among the happiest for him, saying simply that Bruesewitz was due for a big game.
His parents couldn't have agreed more.
"We were pleased to see that because we've been around athletics enough to know that so much of it is between your ears," Rob says. "The lid came off the basket and it's easier to shoot with confidence when you see that first one go in."
Of course, just because a few of Bruesewitz's 3-pointers have dropped through the hoop doesn't mean he'll stop being the blue-collar, floorburn-collecting guy that made him the player he is when Wisconsin takes on Syracuse in the Sweet 16.
"I don't really have regard for my body when we're playing basketball, as long as we win games," Bruesewitz says. "I'll feel it the next day."
It certainly hurts a lot less when he's making shots and Wisconsin is winning.
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