Badgers’ ‘real deal’ Koenig shows no fear at the point
OMAHA, Neb. -- As the holder of Wisconsin records for minutes played, games played and games started, Josh Gasser is equipped to identify basketball excellence.
OMAHA, Neb. - As the holder of Wisconsin records for minutes played, games played and games started, Josh Gasser is equipped to identify basketball excellence.
The fifth-year senior guard from Port Washington High School marvels when he watches sophomore Bronson Koenig perform.
“He’s tough,” Gasser said. “He’s tough as nails. You can describe toughness in a lot of ways. It’s not just fighting a guy or diving on the floor.
“It is having the … (cojones) to take and make big shots.”
Koenig, who returned to practice Wednesday after being held out Tuesday because he was ill, always has been a pass-first point guard with remarkable vision and unquestioned selflessness. Yet in leading La Crosse Aquinas High School to two Wisconsin Division 3 state high school titles and helping Wisconsin win the Big Ten tournament title in Chicago, Koenig showed the mentality of an elite scorer who wants the ball in his hands when the outcome is in doubt.
UW (31-3), seeded No. 1 in the NCAA Tournament West Region, shouldn’t need Koenig’s scoring when it faces 16th-seeded Coastal Carolina (24-9) about 8:20 p.m. tonight at CenturyLink Center.
However, Koenig showed in the semifinals and title game of the Big Ten tournament he can carry the team. Koenig scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half of UW’s 71-51 victory over Purdue. After making just 1 of 6 shots in the opening half, Koenig made 6 of 8 attempts in the second half to help UW outscore Purdue 41-16.
Koenig had only two field-goal attempts - both three-pointers - and one point in the first half of
UW’s 80-69 overtime victory over Michigan State in the title game. He was stuck on one point until he buried a three-pointer with 10 minutes, 43 seconds left in regulation.
Beginning with that basket, Koenig hit 4 of 4 three-pointers and 5 of 8 shots overall and scored 17 points in the final 15:43 of regulation and overtime.
Gasser raved when asked about Koenig’s ability to take over the game on a team that features senior Frank Kaminsky as the No. 1 offensive threat.
“As a sophomore, when you’ve got a lot of veterans on this team, that can be tough,” he said. “But he knows that we have confidence in him. He has confidence in himself to take and make those shots.
“He proves it over and over again. I love when the ball is in his hand in those situations.”
You want shots that are timely and critical?
Koenig buried a three-pointer to snap a 12-3 Michigan State run and pull UW within 57-49. His drive through traffic and left-handed finish, after being held by Michigan State’s Lourawls Nairn Jr. while coming off a screen, cut the deficit to 59-54.
That drive was the result of a halftime chat with senior Traevon Jackson, who gave Koenig pointers on how to fight through the Spartans’ physical defense on ball-screens.
“He was telling me - like he’s always telling me - to keep being aggressive,” Koenig said. “This is your time to take over.
“Telling me how to work off those screens because of how hard they were hedging. I finally got in the lane and got a layup.”
His three-pointer in the left corner gave UW a 60-59 lead and capped a 14-2 run. His two free throws with 15.2 seconds left - after being fouled on a hard drive through the lane from
the left wing - forged a 69-69 tie and forced overtime.
That Koenig attacked the rim rather than launch a three-pointer illustrated his growth. A three-point window was open briefly.
“I thought about it for a split second and then I saw a lane open and I just went,” Koenig said.
Head coach Bo Ryan and associate head coach Greg Gard, the primary recruiter for Koenig, have seen the playmaking ability for years.
So has junior forward Sam Dekker, Koenig’s AAU teammate with the Wisconsin Playground Warriors.
“When we played AAU together that was his favorite thing to do,” Dekker said, “just break guys down and get an easy shot.
“There’s times when he would start cooking and I wouldn’t see the ball for 5 or 6 minutes, but I didn’t care because he was hitting every shot.”
Koenig has started 17 games in place of Jackson. He has averaged 12.2 points, 2.6 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game and shot 46.5 percent from three-point range (40 of 86) in those games.
His numbers in the Big Ten tournament: 16.3 points per game, 52.9 percent three-point shooting (9 of 17), 50 percent shooting overall (15 of 30), with 12 assists and three turnovers. He played 116 minutes in the three games (38.7 average).
Ryan, in his 14th season as UW’s head coach and his 31st season overall, isn’t surprised.
“If you asked him what I say to him, I say, that’s what we brought you here for,” Ryan said. “He’s a young man who, when he was playing up there in La Crosse and going to AAU stuff and going to Catholic League tournaments and stuff, his name was a buzz around the state. A lot of people knew about Bronson.
“I think people thought he was one of those guys that matured early, and that he wouldn’t get better. I didn’t think so. Neither did Gard, who was on the recruiting trail for him for a long time.
“He’s the real deal.”