MADISON, Wis. Last season, it was easy to spot Ben Brust on the basketball court in games. Chances were, the Wisconsin guard could be found hovering around the 3-point line, waiting for an opportunity to chuck a deep ball at any moment.
That isn't to say Brust, whose range rivals the best in the nation, doesn't still get a thrill out of burying a 28-foot 3-pointer. But now, he's just as apt to drive to the bucket or dish the ball to an open teammate.
Brust has expanded his game, partly out of necessity and partly out of the natural maturation of becoming an upperclassman. When point guard Josh Gasser tore his ACL less than two weeks before the season began, Brust suddenly became the elder statesman with the most playing experience among backcourt players.
He hasn't disappointed in his newfound role.
"I think it forced me to step up and do some more things," Brust said. "Just be solid defensively, try and help out on rebounding and take advantage of the opportunities offensively when they're there."
Statistics show just how far Brust, a junior, has come in the span of a year, and it's not a stretch to suggest he is the most improved player on the team. Last season, Brust tallied 26 assists and 26 turnovers as the sixth man. He averaged 7.3 points per game and 2.2 rebounds in 21.3 minutes.
This season, Brust has stepped into a starting role and leads Wisconsin in minutes per game (32.6). He is averaging 10.7 points and 5.5 rebounds -- and four times this season, he has tallied double-doubles for points and rebounds despite being 6-foot-1. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of his game is an improved assists-to-turnovers ratio. Despite playing as an off-guard, he leads Wisconsin in assists with 61 to just 26 turnovers.
Point guard Traevon Jackson is the next closest with 48 assists, and he has 38 turnovers.
"Ben is not a one-dimensional player," Badgers assistant coach Lamont Paris said. "I think he's tried to look at the shooting aspect of it to improve other parts of his game, like shot fake and put it on the floor. It was critical for it to happen this year as it turned out with Josh getting hurt. Some of those things are things Josh would have been able to do."
Brust also has cut down on the percentage of 3-pointers he takes compared to 2-pointers, although the majority of his shots still come from long range. Last year, 64.2 percent of his shots were 3-pointers, compared to 55.8 percent this season.
When he scored a game-high 20 points during Wisconsin's 74-68 victory against Illinois on Sunday, Brust made 5 of 6 2-pointers and 2 of 5 3s -- a sign of progress in his mind.
"I think I've left a couple opportunities out there that have been pretty easy buckets that I've missed," he said. "But it was good to get a couple more 2s to go down last game in comparison to 3s. I'm just trying to take advantage of different opportunities to see what's there, see what the defense is giving me and go from there."
Badgers freshman guard Zak Showalter said Brust has demonstrated an ability to be a leader on the team this season as well. Showalter spends most of his time in practice learning plays for the upcoming opponent as a member of Wisconsin's scout team.
"He's a great friend to have and a great guy to go to," Showalter said of Brust. "For me, when I'm on scout, I've got to go to him and get plays. I refresh plays with him because he kind of plays my position. I bounce some stuff off him and get ideas. He's always the one drawing up plays in the locker room for me. It's good to have someone like that, a leader, an upperclassman to go to."
If there is an aspect to Brust's game that needs polishing over the remaining seven weeks of the season, it's his ability to finish at the basket, according to Badgers coach Bo Ryan. But for the most part, Brust's consistency has kept him on the court longer than any player on the team this season.
"When he's shooting it, he can stretch the defense," Ryan said. "And he can attack off the bounce better this year. And it's nice to watch people get better. That's why they're here. Ben is one of those guys.
"He's learned more about the game, the overall game than just the shooter that he was, scorer that he was coming in. He's bright. He picks up a lot of things. I hope he just keeps getting better."
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.