MADISON - After he watched his point guard average 16.3 points in three Big Ten tournament games, helping the University of Wisconsin win its third conference tournament championships, Nigel Hayes recognized that his sophomore classmate – Bronson Koenig – earned the right to a new nickname.
After all, not only did Koenig hit the clutch shots down the stretch to help the Badgers overcome an 11-point deficit to Michigan State, he shot 15 of 30 from the field, made 52.9 percent of his 3-point shots and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4-to-1 in three games, including a sparkling nine assists against the Spartans.
Hayes has already labeled him at Mr. Solidarity, a nickname derived from “Mr. Solid” that he recognizes is more about being funny than grammatically correct. But after Koenig scored 17 of his 18 points in the final 15+ plus minutes to close out Michigan State, Koenig was worthy of a new moniker.
“He’s the one who got us into overtime; he made his big 3s,” Hayes said of Koenig. “His nickname is Klutch Koenig, Klutch spelt with a K. He’s done a terrific job for us ever since he’s gotten the starting job and I know he’ll continue.”
Koenig’s moxie is one of the reasons Wisconsin is the top seed in the West Region and a trendy pick – outside of No.1 overall seed and undefeated Kentucky – to make a run for the national championship, a journey that starts Friday evening against 16th-seed Coastal Carolina in Omaha, Neb.
Wisconsin (31-3) came into the season with extraordinary high expectations after making a run to the national semifinals a year ago. The Badgers returned four starters, over 80 percent of their scoring and rebounding and two senior guards in the backcourt - a glue guy in Josh Gasser and a point guard in Traevon Jackson who had started every game for two straight years.
UW also had Koenig, but the La Crosse native would need to wait his turn and continue to fill the role of bench contributor.
Koenig was only meant to be the starter for one game, a fill-in while senior All-American Frank Kaminsky recovered from a concussion. That role increased dramatically Jan.11 when Jackson fell awkwardly after contesting a shot and broke the long bone in his right foot that connects to the pinkie toe.
Most teams wouldn’t have the ability to replace a starting guard who had started 84 consecutive games. Then again most teams don’t have a college-ready point guard that some schools gave up recruiting in high school because they thought he had matured early and hit his peak.
“I didn’t think so and neither did Coach (Greg) Gard, who was on the recruiting trail with him for a long time,” said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. “He’s the real deal.”
Koenig has proven his worth over his 18 games as a starter. Helping lead Wisconsin to a Big Ten title sweep and a 16-2 record, the sophomore has gone from a player averaging 4.4 points off the bench to averaging 12.2 points, 2.6 assists and 1.1 turnovers (21 turnovers) in 36.4 minutes a game.
“He doesn’t come out during games,” Hayes said. “You can hear him during the game and he’ll be like ‘man I’m tired’ and as soon as he gets the ball in his hands, it’s like, ‘oh you’re tired when you hit that shot huh?’ He logs heavy minutes.”
Jackson’s fingerprints are all over Koenig’s game, not surprising considering their lockers are next to each other. Once a player to purely attempt jump shots, Koenig has spent the second half of the season attempting more drives in the lane and attempting more free throws. After attempting only six free throws in the first 18 games of the season, Koenig is 34-for-41 (82.9 percent) since Jan.20.
“He really knows who should set the screen and what plays to run,” said Kaminsky. “He’s just a student of the game, and he understands time and score. He understands what he needs to do. He was just making plays.”
But arguably the biggest thing Koenig has learned from Jackson is his ability to thrive under pressure. While it wasn’t like one of the countless late-game jumpers Jackson has hit to win games for the Badgers in his career, Koenig proved his poise when he knocked down two critical free throws to tie the title game in the final seconds. He earned that opportunity by doing what Jackson had taught him – being aggressive, driving into the lane and trying to draw contact.
“He (Jackson) was telling me, like he always tells me, to keep being aggressive, this is your time to take over and just telling me how to work off of those ball screens because of the hard hedging and everything like that,” said Koenig, who admits Jackson is always in his ear with coaching points and reminders. “I was finally able to get in the lane and got a layup.”
It takes more than a couple late free throws to become clutch (or “klutch”), which was why Koenig’s tournament run was so vital to his confidence. Even in the tournament quarterfinals against Michigan or the semifinals against Purdue, Koenig was the player with the ball in his hands, creating space from a defender and hitting a mid-range jump shot or a 3-pointer with the play clock about to expire.
He also had only three turnovers in 116 minutes in the tournament (one every 38.7 minutes).
“When Trae went down I was confident in myself but really, I feel like this tournament I really took a few steps forward,” Koenig said.
Returning to practice Tuesday for the first time since his injury and his subsequent Jan.15 surgery, Jackson is not ruling out a possible return to the lineup this weekend, which would give Wisconsin three experienced guards who can fill important roles.
Only Ryan knows how those roles will be filled, but it’ll be hard to limit Koenig. Not only is he shooting 43.5 percent overall and 46.3 performance from 3-point range, Koenig has helped Kaminsky (19.4), Sam Dekker (13.6) and Hayes (12.8) all average double figures without Jackson in the lineup.
“Bronson is a good basketball player,” said Kaminsky. “At the end of the shot clock we put the ball in his hands. He was making plays. He was knocking down everything. When things are going right, things are going right. We have all the confidence in the world in Bronson. He has really stepped up.”