NORMAL — When Illinois State basketball coach Dan Muller awarded Isaac Gassman a scholarship for this season during the summer, the redshirt freshman guard/forward called it “huge.”
Yet Gassman wasn't about to be satisfied.
“Hopefully it's the start of a lot of contribution to the program,” he said.
The 6-foot-5 Ottawa High School graduate is getting his chance to contribute early in the season. Gassman has averaged 16.8 minutes in ISU's first five games ahead of Saturday's 8 p.m. contest against Charleston Southern at Redbird Arena. Both teams are 3-2.
Gassman came to ISU as a preferred walk-on. He practiced and traveled with the Redbirds last season when they shared the Missouri Valley Conference title while taking a redshirt season to preserve four years of eligibility.
Injuries to junior center David Ndiaye and freshman point guard Elijah Clarance freed up minutes in ISU's rotation to start this season. The versatile Gassman, who has played three different spots, has begun to look more comfortable after what he admitted was a shaky start in the season opener at Florida Gulf Coast.
“I underestimated the feeling of not playing for a year having redshirted. It kind of showed, especially the first game being out there,” said Gassman. “I definitely felt more of a rhythm in South Carolina (during the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic at Myrtle Beach) and played my game. It's not always going to be scoring 15 or whatever.”
Whether it's hitting a couple floaters as he did last Sunday against Tulsa, which helped halt the Golden Hurricane's momentum, or sinking a 3-pointer during Wednesday's 86-57 victory against Quincy, Gassman is willing to do anything he's asked.
While Gassman is averaging a modest 2.8 points and 2.0 rebounds, Muller won't judge Gassman's contribution by his statistics.
“Ike gave us very good minutes throughout the weekend (at Myrtle Beach),” said Muller. “He wasn't very good in that (Florida Gulf Coast) game, but it was his first game in college after sitting out a year. That's one game. He's still not making shots, but we're hoping he'll do that at some point.”
Gassman, who is 2 of 7 from 3-point range, has to be ready at a moment's notice for whatever position he's asked to fill. The left-hander already has played the 2 (off guard), 3 (small forward) and 4 (power forward) spots in the lineup.
“Those plays you have to know like the back of your hand. If you don't, you'll be in trouble,” he said. “Once I got them down and got them in my head, this transition has been pretty easy. You just have to know who you're going in for and what position you'll be on the floor.”
Gassman, and every ISU player, knows staying on the floor will be enhanced by their performance on the defensive end.
The Redbirds' defense had several lapses in the first half Wednesday, allowing Quincy driving lanes to the basket as the Division II Hawks cut the deficit to eight at the break. ISU tightened that up in the second half, and Muller would like to see a continuation against Charleston Southern.
“Our man defense has to get better,” said Muller, who didn't go to a zone against Quincy. “There's just some teams we have to play man (against) and we should be better. Obviously we'll be better when we have our full complement of players ... Our man defense is the No. 1 thing that has to get better for us to win games.”
ISU junior forward Milik Yarbrough will play Saturday after serving a one-game suspension for violation of team rules.
Clarance went through warmups for the first time Wednesday, but didn't have a jersey on. He is not likely to play for a while after just beginning limited practice following an 8½-week layoff for a stress fracture of his left foot. Ndiaye is still wearing a boot for the stress fracture on his right foot.