LA CROSSE — One often hears about a player accepting and filling a role, doing what the team needs regardless of personal accolades.
For Tanner Bruchs, a 6-foot-2 senior on the La Crossea Crosse men’s basketball team, that role has evolved each season he’s donned an Eagles uniform. The former Poynette High School standout has always been a shooter, but his transformation into a defensive stopper for the Eagles has been a big factor in their 9-4 start this season.
“For Tanner, and it’s a credit to him, he’s been willing to impact the game consistently on the defensive end, and playing himself to exhaustion on the defensive end,” Eagles coach Kent Dernbach said.
That’s a departure for Bruchs, whose career had previously been defined as a high-level scorer. He set the Poynette High School record for career points (1,547), and earned a spot on NCAA Division II Bemidji State’s roster as a freshman. He played in nine games, and scored at a decent rate in limited minutes. Bruchs transferred to Division III La Crosse prior to his sophomore year, and started showing the shooting stroke that makes him dangerous.
He started 17 of the 24 games he played last season, when Dernbach took over as interim coach. Bruchs led the team in 3-pointers made (36) and taken (104), and averaged 8.2 ppg. That season was also when Bruchs shifted his focus from scoring to selling out on defense.
“Coach came in; he’s a defensive-minded coach. He wants us to get it done on the defensive end before the offensive end,” Bruchs said Monday. “So last year, I started halfway through the year, and I come in with the mindset of, ‘If I want to be on the court, I need to get it done on the defensive end.’ Even if that means guarding their best player.”
Bruchs’ size and speed gives the Eagles a different kind of perimeter defender. He’s big enough to handle off-guards and wings, can fight through screens, and hold his own if he has to switch onto a post player. Senior Taulvish McCray and junior Sam Burkhart are high-level defenders as well, but both stand 5-foot-10, so it’s tougher for them to contest shots from taller guards — something Bruchs can do.
Bruchs harassed UW-Stout guard John Keefe into a 6-of-15 night from the field last week after Keefe entered the game averaging nearly 23 points. He did a similar job on Lake Forest’s Tashon Brown at the D3 Desert Invitational on Dec. 28.
What’s been impressive is Bruchs’ ability to produce on both ends both as a starter and off the bench. Some players don’t handle it well when adapting to coming off the bench, as Bruchs had to after injuring his ankle earlier this season. He missed three games, but then came back even stronger.
“It was tough because I got injured when I was starting. And then I was coming off of an injury, but, I don’t know, I just kept it positive,” Bruchs said.
“That’s all mental. It’s a mental thing. Obviously it weighs on you when you’re not playing, it’s in the back of your head. But you’ve got to keep the positive mindset in practice and every game, even if you’re on the bench. You have to stay positive for the rest of the guys.”
Bruchs has started the first two Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference games this season, and make no mistake, Bruchs is still a microwave for La Crosse — he can heat up in an instant. He’s had games this year in which he’s flat-out taken over for the Eagles.
In his return game from injury against Wartburg, Bruchs went 6-of-6 from the field, 5-for-5 from 3-point range, and scored 19 points. Two games later, he went 7-of-9 from beyond the arc and scored a career-high 27 points against Lake Forest. In both cases, the Eagles continued to feed him the ball and he felt as in the zone as he’s felt at La Crosse.
“It’s something else, I’ll tell you that. Honestly, it feels like I’m throwing the ball in the ocean sometimes, like against Lake Forest,” he said. “I was feeling it, guys kept getting me the ball, there was like four possession in a row they kept finding me, and I just knocked it down.”
After some bumps early this season, the Eagles are looking like a team that will be a handful in a loaded WIAC. Bruchs will be a big factor if that comes to pass.
“I think he’s become really comfortable defining his game on the defensive end,” Dernbach said. “For players to start games, come off the bench, play 30 minutes one game, play 15 minutes the next, if you’re defining your role strictly on the offensive end, it’s really difficult.
“I’m so proud of Tanner that he’s been willing to sacrifice for the team.”