MADISON - There are few environments in college basketball that admit the type of pressure that a Final Four does. Considering tens of thousands of fans in a massive stadium are focused on the court with millions more watching around the world, it’s an environment that creates butterflies in even some of the most seasoned basketball players.
It’s one of the reasons why Wisconsin assistant coach Lamont Paris is so confident in Bronson Koenig temporarily taking over the Badgers offense. He’s seen his sophomore guard thrive in the toughest of environments.“He had 11 points in the first half of a national semifinal game last year,” said Paris. “I think he’s ready to play whoever we play.”
Admitting to be a tentative freshman last season, averaging 3.5 points and 1.1 assists, Koenig’s performance against Kentucky has served as a springboard into this season, which will be critical tonight for when No.7 Wisconsin (15-2, 3-1 Big Ten) hosts Nebraska (10-6, 2-2) at the Kohl Center.
Beginning the season averaging 19.8 minutes per game in a lead reserve role, Koenig has now jumped into the starting lineup for the foreseeable future with senior guard Traevon Jackson expecting to be on the shelf until late February.
“It’s very unfortunate that Trae had that injury, but someone goes down like that, people have got to be ready to step up,” said Koenig. “I am sure I am ready to step up. My teammates, and Trae also, which is going to be big, are going to support me the whole way.”
Jackson has taken Koenig under his wing for the last two years and taught him how to be a successful point guard in Bo Ryan’s system. It’s nothing new for the Badgers, as Ryan typically grooms a point guard behind an established starter for two years before giving them the keys to the UW offense.
Ironically, Jackson and Koenig have been the two exceptions. Jackson started point guard after only one season following the graduation of Jordan Taylor and the season-ending ACL injury to Josh Gasser. Koenig now fills in for Jackson for the next 4-to-6 weeks while the senior recovers from a broken bone in his foot suffered Sunday in the loss to Rutgers.
“Bronson is going to have a lot on his hands the next few days,” said senior Frank Kaminsky, who returns after missing the Rutgers game with concussion symptoms. “It’s definitely tough going from the sixth or seventh guy to play starter’s minutes overnight, but he’s ready for it. I know he’ll figure everything out. It might take a few days, but he’ll be ready when Nebraska comes.”
Koenig has absorbed many learning lessons in his first two seasons; time that he admits has been a rocky transition from lead scorer in high school to reserve. Jackson has taught him to not be afraid to play aggressive, which means driving into the lane and drawing contact. On the season, Koenig has only attempted six free throws.
“I’m always going to try to play my game, but take my play-making skills to the next level,” said Koenig. “Just try to make more plays, make more things happen, be more aggressive, but distribute the ball.”
Associate head coach Greg Gard, who started recruiting Koenig when he was a freshman at La Crosse Aquinas, has told his young point guard that he can’t be afraid to shoot the ball if he comes out cold, something he pointed out after Koenig missing a couple early shots in the conference road opener at Northwestern.
Before Koenig made his first career start Sunday in place of Kaminsky, Gard gave him a simple message.
“He said, ‘Let it rip. Let it fly,’” said Koenig, drawing a smile. “I was pretty happy about that.”
He got a taste of that in the start, scoring 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting, registering three assists to only one turnover.
“I think (the start) helped me a lot,” said Koenig. “I thought I did OK, but I thought I could have done a lot of things better. It taught me a lot of things.”
Koenig, who is averaging 4.9 points, 2.1 assists and 1.2 rebounds per game, knows his role will change in Jackson’s absence, most notably that his leadership skills will need to be increased.
“That’s one area of improvement I need to really start working on is my leadership and being vocal,” said Koenig. “I’m confident that I’ll step into that role.”