INDIANAPOLIS - The personality and tomfoolery exude from their bodies every time they step in front of a microphone.
Whether it be taking shots at the NCAA or the media, as well as with each other regarding their video game and ping pong exploits, there’s no denying that the University of Wisconsin basketball team is as loose as they can possibly be.
And while senior Frank Kaminsky and junior Sam Dekker have drawn the most headlines for being matchup nightmares and having budding NBA draft stock, it’s been the play of sophomore Bronson Koenig that has kept everyone on point between the lines.
“You look for your point guard to be the most level-headed person on the court,” said Kaminsky. “Bronson is able to do that with his play and how he talks to people. He’s stepping into his role really nicely right now. He’s leading our team on offense, on the defense end.”
Without that approach, it’s a fair assumption Wisconsin (35-3) wouldn’t be playing in the national semifinals for a second year in a row, something they’ll experience Saturday night when they take on Kentucky (38-0) at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Given that UW returned four starters, including two guards, from last year’s Final Four team, Koenig was prepared for a bench role in 2014-15 behind seniors Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson, with an eye toward being promoted to the starting lineup as a junior.
The story is obviously well known now: Jackson broke a bone in his foot in a loss to Rutgers Jan.11, Koenig stepped in as a full-time starter and Wisconsin didn’t skip a beat.
In 21 games as the Badgers’ starting point guard, Koenig is averaging 11.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. He has gone 46-for-102 (45.1 percent) from 3-point range over the last 21 games and turned the ball over just 25 times in 742 minutes (one every 29.7 min.).
Not surprisingly, Wisconsin is 20-1 over that stretch, and has cut down the nets as the Big Ten regular season, Big Ten tournament and West Regional champions. Even with Koenig struggling with his shot (8-for-24 in the NCAA tournament), he hasn’t been rattled.
“When it comes to basketball he’s very serious and goes about his work,” said Kaminsky. “That’s the kind of personality we need on the court.”
That personality wasn’t initially in play for Koenig, which is a credit to how much he’s worked on his game and his approach in such a short period of time. Averaging 19.8 minutes off the bench to start the year, Koenig has played more than 30 minutes 19 times in the last 22 games, including 40 minutes in an overtime win against Michigan and a career-high 42 minutes in an overtime win at Michigan State in the conference tournament finals.
He’s also changed the way he played, going from a guard who hunted jump shots to a confident slasher who can get to the rim and score points without losing his perimeter touch. After attempting only six free throws in the first 18 games, Koenig has gone 47-for-57 from the line since Jan. 20 (82.5 percent).
Part of that confidence came from Jackson, who embraced the opportunity to help Koenig develop and thrive. With his locker located right next to the sophomore’s, Jackson provided a simple message: go out and play aggressive, and don’t look over your shoulder because you won’t be coming out of the game.
“(My approach was) how can I help him be the best player he can be, and he’s been doing awesome,” said Jackson. “He really stepped up and led the team well. The guys have really responded to him. It’s been a great journey for me to be in this position.”
Even with the experienced guards returning to the lineup, Gasser had high expectations for Koenig from the outset of training camp because of the hole created by the departure of Ben Brust. One of only three players gone from last year’s roster and the only one in the rotation, Brust led Wisconsin in minutes (34.7) and free throw shooting (88.9), was second in points per game (12.8), steals (29) and 3-point shooting (39.3) and was third in rebounding (4.5).
From the minute he first saw Koenig on campus all the way to his 11-point first half against Kentucky in the national semifinals a year ago, Gasser knew the sophomore was ready for a bigger role on the big stage.
“A lot of times you say it’s high school, he’s playing against high school kids and it’s going to be different when you get here; you could just see it with him that he knew what he was doing and he could play,” said Gasser. “It was all about him being confident, being aggressive and mentally getting to the point that he knew what he needed to do.”
Defined as calm, cool and collected by his teammates, able to confidently handle any on-the-court situation that’s thrown at him, Koenig’s level-head approach will be critical against a Wildcats defense that is tops in the country, thanks in part to nine McDonald’s All-Americans who have tremendous athleticism, length and skill.
Wisconsin has none of those, but Koenig didn’t miss a beat when he said in November that the Badgers beat Kentucky in the number of former Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association All-Stars on its roster, 7-0.
Working like any good point guard, Koenig was simply finding an advantage.
“He’s been telling people what he sees, telling people where to go and how they should do things,” said Dekker, a former AAU teammate of Koenig’s. “If he doesn’t agree with something he’s made it known, and that’s something he needs. If you’re afraid to address something to someone, they’re not going to respect you as much. You’ve got to be upfront with people with how you feel, what you think and what will work. He’s growing into his own and has really matured.”