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January 18, 2012MADISON - Junior forward Ryan Evans, even though he grew up and played high school basketball in Arizona, always had the Big Ten on his mind during his prep days.
It didn't matter that he was in a desert halfway across the continental United States, in a land that breathes Wildcat basketball and their legacy.
It didn't even matter when he didn't make the varsity cut as a high school sophomore. It was Big Ten basketball or bust for Evans.
"That really sparked the fire," Evans, the 6-foot-6, nearly 10-point scorer for the Badgers, said. "It's been pretty much burning within me since then. I've got a lot of people that I want to prove wrong."
Tab Arizona State, Arizona, other Pac 12 schools and Big 12 institutions on the list of schools that could have probably gotten involved that didn't. All those colleges could have had the adequate and continually improving services of Evans, a player that has seemingly developed every aspect of his game.
When he bounced back from being cut, made the team as a junior and played on arguably the state of Arizona's top prep team, Evans had the momentum he thought was necessary to land the scholarship of his dreams, the reward that he had so diligently worked for.
But the suitors never really came. The colleges never really came knocking. It even got to the point that Evans' mother pleaded with her son to go the traditional route of applying for college the way most non-athletic or academics do out of high school.
"My senior year I ended up being an all-state player," Evans said. "But I didn't really get recruited heavily until the end of my senior year. Not everyone is going to get their goals, but I think if you have a certain type of work ethic things are going to work for you.
"They ended up working for me."
Following Evans' final game as a prep basketball player - - a state semifinal loss - - Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan extended a full-ride offer for Evans to become a part of the Wisconsin team.
"I never envisioned myself going to a normal college or playing at a smaller school," Evans said. "I always envisioned myself having fans, being on ESPN. My dad always said, 'All you need is one.' I ended up getting that one.
"You wouldn't be able to imagine the feeling that I felt when I got that offer."
Sophomore point guard Josh Gasser didn't waste any time bursting onto the prep circuit. As a freshman point guard for Port Washington (WI) high school, Gasser did the unthinkable. He led his 11-9 regular season Pirates squad through the rigors of the WIAA State Tournament and past all opponents by an average of 15.5 points before dropping the state final by six to Monroe.
Gasser averaged 11.2 points per game during that tournament run and logged double-digit scoring in the final five games of that tournament. For most kids a run like that, particularly as a 14-year-old, would have helped foster an environment of arrogance or self-entitlement. It's essentially human nature.
Maybe Gasser's not necessarily human.
"I was one of those kids who never really thought about that stuff," Gasser said. "I just went out there and played."
By playing well early in his high school career, Gasser, unlike Evans, had several mid-major's recruiting him during the early portion of his prep basketball tenure. He was playing at a high enough level, early enough, that some of the smaller schools in the Midwest thought the only way they could land a player of Gasser's potential would be if they offered him early.
It almost worked.
Northern Iowa, a team that has had certain success in post season play in recent years, was one of the schools that seemingly had Gasser in its sights. Northwestern, though not technically a mid-major because of its affiliation with the Big Ten, a BCS conference, was the other.
"Both of those coaching staffs thought I was going to decide between those two," Gasser said. "They were on me pretty hard and both were really thinking that I was going to go there.
"Then the Wisconsin offer came."
Patience is often considered one of the strongest virtues any individual may possess. In the case of both Evans and Gasser, two teammates that continually try to alleviate much of the pressure Jordan Taylor receives as UW's top player, it was the end-all-be-all.
"I didn't fill out any applications or anything," Evans said. "My focus was just how I envisioned myself playing at a division one school. I never envisioned myself doing anything else."
Evans was a Big Ten prospect before he even knew it.
His mom and dad both went to Minnesota, where his father became an All-American wrestler. Evans' uncle went to Wisconsin as did an aunt. Another uncle went to Illinois, as did another aunt. Two cousins rounded out the Big Ten family tree by attending Illinois.
"I've always had Big Ten on my mind."
It was just a matter of waiting it out. It was just a matter of resiliency. It was just about waiting for the exact and right moment for an opportunity to present itself.
Only after he was told to send his highlight film to then assistant coach Howard Moore from a former Wisconsin football player who happened to see Evans' in a game during his trip to the Super Bowl, being held in Phoenix, did Evans really jumpstart his recruiting experience.
"Coach Moore came out and watched me play," Evans said. "He watched a lot of game film. He came out and like I said, offered me after the last game of my senior year."
When Wisconsin takes on Northwestern inside the Kohl Center Wednesday evening, it will mark just the second time Gasser has faced the coaching staff he nearly committed to. The first time, if you remember, went over pretty well.
Gasser became the first-ever Badger to record a triple-double with his 10-point, 10-assist and 12-rebound effort in a 78-46 pasting of the Wildcats.
"I really enjoyed going there to play and seeing all those faces again," Gasser said. "And the coaches. It was kind of bittersweet because I had such a good relationship with them and they were kind of disappointed with everything, obviously.
"At the same time it was good to see them and stuff like that. I had a pretty good game down there so that didn't hurt."
That game could have, and probably would have, had a chance to be much different had it not been for a late scholarship opening in the 2010 recruiting class. Vander Blue, now with Marquette, had previously verbally committed to play for Ryan's Badgers.
But when a late change of heart opened a scholarship, Gasser was the beneficiary and the rest is history.
"Coach Greg Gard was the one recruiting me," Gasser said. "He kept saying that one was going to open up and he was right. He kept his word so it was definitely good for myself and my family trust-wise.
"To end up here was a good opportunity for me."
It was also a good opportunity for the Badgers, a team that landed a player that averaged nearly six points, nearly four rebounds and two assists per game during his true freshman season. As a sophomore, Gasser is averaging 7.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.
Both Evans and Gasser needed to be patient during their respective recruitments. Though their games are remarkably different, their paths to Madison are quite similar.
Both had to endure plenty of difficult moments throughout their recruitments, moments when it didn't seem as though a Big Ten offer was coming (in Evans' case) or the dream scholarship to Wisconsin wasn't coming (in Gasser's case).
Eventually though, as Evans' pointed out, each player's hard work parlayed itself into a dream scenario.
"I wake up every morning happy to be somewhere where a lot of my friends weren't able to be," Evans said. "A lot of my friends would like to be at a school like this, but they didn't get that opportunity.
"I'm just trying to take advantage of it. I'm realizing that each and every day."
"It was all about patience," Gasser said. "I kind of wanted to get the whole process over because it's such a grueling process. It's tough mentally, especially during a high school season. I really wanted to get it over with.
"I'm glad I had good sources and good resources that helped me out with the decision because I might not be here if it wasn't for them."