At least there’s one responsibility Koenig doesn’t have to add to pre-game checklist, seek out D'Mitrik Trice - his heir apparent next season – and give him a pep talk about bouncing back.
“I’ve always had a lot of confidence in D’Mitrik, and I won’t need to say anything at all before the game,” Koenig said. “During the game I’ll say stuff to try to coach him up … I don’t need to say anything to him. From his background and where he comes from, I know he’ll be perfectly all right.”
Trice’s first weekend could be described as a mixed bag. Head coach Greg Gard commended the guard’s performance in the win over Virginia Tech, pointed to the three assists and no turnovers more than the 2-for-7 from 3-point range, for a first appearance in the national tournament, but there was admittedly some “freshmen moments” in the win over Villanova.
But if anyone thought Trice wouldn’t be all smiles with more basketball to be played, you don’t know how the 6-0 guard is wired.
“I’m in great spirits,” Trice said. “I know my confidence isn’t going to waver with what I’ve been able to do. I’m going to come off the bench and help this team in any way possible.”
Trice has played above his years throughout his first collegiate season, averaging 5.8 points and 1.7 assists per one turnover, a nod to the confidence he gained as a successful prep quarterback and point guard and the genes passed down from his brother.
Travis Trice finished his career at Michigan State with 1,135 points, 95 of which came in the final five games of his senior year in a career that ended in the Final Four. D’Mitrik was there in Indianapolis, not knowing his future team was going to be playing in the night cap.
He also was there the year before when the Spartans’ season ended in the Elite Eight in Madison Square Garden, the same arena he hopes to take the eighth-seed Badgers (27-9) one step closer to their third Final Four in four seasons when they play fourth-seed Florida (26-8) Friday night (8:59 p.m. CT, TBS).
“It was definitely a different feeling,” Trice said of his first N.C.A.A. games. “It’s definitely different getting out on the floor instead of being a spectator and being in the stands watching the game. It was an exhilarating feeling being out there and starting my own legacy on the court.”
While Friday’s opening round game was a thrill, Saturday’s game against top-seeded Villanova was more of a constant battle with himself to fight through a slump.
The main culprit was two quick fouls within the first 40 seconds he was on the court that got him out of rhythm. That was evident when he was put back in after the nine minute mark and turned the ball over on his first possession that led to a steal and dunk by national player of the year candidate Josh Hart. Gard called timeout and Trice sat again.
“Every experience will help all these guys,” Gard said. “With him every time he came out, settle down a little bit, calm down, he’ll be OK. Got through that experience and hopefully he’ll be better because of it.”
Trice figured he would be cemented to the bench after committing a shooting foul, missing a jumper and committing a turnover in a 79 second span in the second half. It forced Koenig back on the court with three fouls, but Trice had barely sat when Koenig was whistled for an offensive foul with 13:41 remaining.
For as bad as things were going, Trice knew he had to turn around his play or his team’s season was likely done.
“I knew that I was going to be put in that situation once he got that fourth foul,” Trice said. “I already had that mindset after halftime. I told my coaches that I know what I have to do, gave them all handshakes and things like that. Once he got that fourth, I had to go out there and perform at a high level, especially with him sitting down for a while. I had to calm the team down and lead them anyway possible.”
He played until Koenig returned with 5:43 remaining. UW was down four, but Trice had improved ball security, was playing better defense and, most importantly, kept the squad united in the huddle during the break with Koenig on the bench.
Immediately after the win, Trice got a text message from Travis congratulating him and encouraging words to get his younger brother back to playing his game. The main message was to stay calm. After all, the game didn’t change.
“He knows I didn’t play to the best of my potential, anywhere near how well I should have played,” Trice said. “He was just giving me pointers of calming down a little bit and getting nerves out of the way.”
Nerves won’t be welcomed going against Florida and its backcourt. Averaging 77.9 points per game, the Gators have received plenty of mileage from senior Kasey Hill (9.7 points and team-best 4.5 assists), graduate transfer Canyon Barry (11.8 ppg), All-SEC first-team sophomore KeVaughn Allen (team-high 13.4 points per game) and junior Chris Chiozza (7.1 ppg) coming off the bench.
“They have some really good guards who attack all the time on offensive and defense, especially attacking the ball,” Trice said. “We’ve just got to be mentally prepared. I’m ready for anything they are going to throw at us. I’m going to go out there with confidence and assurance that I can go out there and perform at a great level.”