Hitting the perimeter shots he’s been known for and delivering in crunch time (another staple of his), Koenig exited the home floor for the final time after scoring 17 points in the second half, including five 3-pointers, to deliver a critical 15-point victory over Minnesota to boost Wisconsin’s psyche.
Even with all the things that surrounded his final game at the Kohl Center, it was simply business as normal.
“I guess that’s what I do, close games,” Koenig said.
“It’s about time you did it,” Hayes said. “Watch warm-ups. The shots he hits, I’m telling you, it’s actually kind of annoying he doesn’t do it more often.”
Koenig’s response was limited to “yeah,” a combination of relief knowing that he can hit the shots and frustration knowing that it had been awhile since he did. Considering all the work he put in during the offseason and then to see the actual results, it was a very apropos.
Remaking his Game
Koenig was the spark for Wisconsin on a pair of Final Four runs in 2014 and ‘15, first coming off the bench to shoot 44.3 percent (51-for-115) as a true freshman and starting the final 24 games of his sophomore season in replace of injured senior point guard Traevon Jackson.
It was the latter that raised expectations, since he averaged 11.5 points, 2.7 assists per game and shot 44.2 percent from 3-point range in those starts to led UW to the national championship game.
Now the unquestioned starter and leader as a junior, Koenig’s mindset was simple entering last season; he knew how to play, it was just a matter of managing the consistency and being in command on the floor.
Asked what his assessment was of that year, Koenig didn’t hesitate: “I was terrible.”
“Last year was probably one of more stressful years of my life,” Koenig admitted. “Just going through the things we went through as a team, and having a nagging knee injury, getting fat, slow and out of shape. It wore me down by the end of the year.”
There certainly were the bright moments, like scoring a game-high 20 points (6-12 3FGs) and hitting the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift UW past second-seeded Xavier in the round of 32, but the disappointments far out weight the positives
During UW’s January skid, a knee-to-knee collision in a loss at Northwestern caused Koenig plenty of discomfort. He scored 27 against Michigan State in the next game, improving the Badgers to 10-9, but said the injury continued to grow worse as the season progressed, causing him to miss practice reps and limit his preparation.
He shot a combined 29.7 percent from the field in the Badgers’ 13 losses compared to 45.6 percent in the team’s 22 wins. Eleven games he finished in single figures, including his 3-for-12 shooting performance in Wisconsin’s 61-56 loss to Notre Dame in the Sweet 16.
It’s a loss that Koenig still admits “cuts deep” with how things unfolded. Not only was he 1-for-6 from three, Koenig had a missed layup and a turnover in the final nine seconds. Change either one of those and UW might have played top-seed North Carolina with a chance to make it three straight Final Four appearances.
In the end it wasn’t his play that bothered as much as his out-of-shape frame.
“That’s when I knew I had to start taking this stuff more seriously if I want to accomplish my dream, make this my job,” Koenig said.
He changed his diet, practice habits, sleep patterns and his mindset. He turned to basketball skills trainer Clint Parks, who has trained NBA’s Kawhi Leonhard since he was a teenager and delivered feedback with brutal honesty.
“I could barely finish the first workout session he put me through,” Koenig said. “He really just got on me after that. He wants to see me go far.”
Koenig also enlisted the help of personal trainer Corey Calliet, who helped actor Michael B. Jordan prepare for his role in the movie “Creed.” Between the two, Koenig spent roughly eight weeks working out in Los Angeles (four weeks before UW’s summer session and four weeks after). Instead of going through the N.B.A. draft process, a luxury that was given to college juniors for the first time, he grinded to become better.
The result was Koenig entering this season the leanest he’s even been with the lowest body fat percentage of his life after what he called “the hardest working summer out of all of them combined.”
Physically he got stronger, his quickness and speed with the ball became more consistent and his shot mechanics were sharpened. It was a basketball overhaul.
“For someone to take the time to do that and go outside their comfort zone, I think it’s a positive sign and I think it can really lead to being a good example,” assistant coach Howard Moore said. “A kid like (freshman point guard) D'Mitrik Trice can see that and see that as a good example that off seasons are meaningful and impactful.”
So knowing full well his game was peaking, combined with his past accolades, Koenig felt disrespected in October when his name wasn’t consistently mentioned on preseason award lists of the nation’s top point guards (only named to the Cousy Award preseason watch list), citing that “I’ve accomplished more in my career here than anyone on those lists.”
“I’m not making any excuses or anything like that, but I know I’m one of the best point guards in the country, if not the best,” Koenig said at the time. “Every match-up with every point guard is going to be personal. I’m looking forward to going out there and show what I’ve been working on all summer. I’m going to be way more of a threat this year with my explosion. Players try to play me for my shot, I’m going to go by them now because I’ve taken the time to prepare.”
The advantage of being a leader as a junior is you get to do it again as a senior.
Koenig was as good to his word at the beginning, a central figure to Wisconsin’s 17-3 start. He was averaging 14.6 points per game, has seven 20+ point games and shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range. Wisconsin won when he played well and lost when he didn’t. In two of the three losses he finished under 10 points, including scoring only two (1-for-13) against North Carolina on UW’s third game in three days.
Wisconsin’s February swoon was tied to Koenig being less than normal. A knee injury suffered against Penn State (UW’s third game in 15 days) and re-injuring it a week later caused the problem to linger, his explosiveness to be limited and his shooting touch to falter. Koenig shot under 40 percent in the six games following the injury and missed Wisconsin’s 64-58 loss at Michigan, his first DNP since the second game of his freshman season.
In the four games since returning, Koenig has started to round back into form with an average of 20 points per game. He also is living up to his nickname again.
Earning the moniker “klutch,” a reward for hitting a school-record 247 3-pointers, Koenig’s killer instinct has him 33-for-63 (52.4 percent) from the perimeter in the last five minutes and overtime of games the last two years. It was only fitting that on senior day, he went 3-for-3 and scored 11 points in the final 3:05.
“He hasn’t lost confidence,” head coach Greg Gard said of Koenig, who was named as a second-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches and third-team by the media. “He knows he’s a good shooter and good shooters, even through tough times, have to maintain that confidence. He puts a lot of time in the gym. He spends extra time after practice. What he does on his off days, to be able to shoot like that, it doesn’t happen without a lot of work. He’s continuing to grow and he’s become a better leader as he’s gone through his career here.”
The journey will be done within the next month, which is why the senior enters tomorrow’s Big Ten tournament quarterfinal at the Verizon Center with a sense of urgency. He felt time winding down last summer and reshaped his body. With the clock almost at zero, he’s not willing to go down without a fight.
“I’m grateful for all that adversity,” he said, “because it motivated me more to attack my training and my preparation this season.”
“I definitely think there’s unfinished business, especially with our early exit last year from the Big Ten tournament. We want to take every game, every day seriously, and just get better every single day.”