OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — While Bronson Koenig isn’t outwardly cocky, the sophomore point guard on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team has been known to boast behind closed doors.
“He’s a confident kid,” Badgers senior guard Josh Gasser said. “If we’re just sitting around watching other games, he’ll be like, ‘I’m better than him. ’I’m better than that guy.’ ”
True story? Or was Gasser stretching the truth?
“I like to have confidence in my own game,” Koenig said. “So, yeah.”
Koenig’s confidence is as high as it has ever been, which is great news for the Badgers (31-3) as they head into their NCAA tournament opener against Coastal Carolina (24-9) tonight at CenturyLink Center.
UW’s stellar frontcourt of senior center Frank Kaminsky, junior forward Sam Dekker and sophomore forward Nigel Hayes gets a lot of attention — and rightfully so — but Chanticleers coach Cliff Ellis believes Koenig is a big reason the Badgers are seeded No. 1 in the West regional.
“Great shooter. Can go to the basket. Great passer. Assist-to-turnover ratio is amazing. He’s had a heck of a year,” Ellis said of Koenig, who is averaging 12.2 points and one turnover every 31.1 minutes as UW’s starting point guard. “I really think a lot of success that they have had this year they can attribute to him, because he’s come through when there has been adversity. He’s a player.”
Even Koenig admits he’s come a long way since taking over the lead point guard role after senior Traevon Jackson sustained a broken right foot in January. The Badgers didn’t skip a beat over the final 14 games of the regular season without Jackson because Koenig played so well, but he took his game to another level in the Big Ten tournament.
Koenig averaged 16.3 points while helping the Badgers win three games in Chicago and made a strong case for being named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, an award that was given to Kaminsky instead.
“If you asked him what I say to him, I say, ’That’s what we brought you here for,’ ” UW coach Bo Ryan said. “Seriously, ask him what has coach Ryan said to you recently? ’Well, this is what you’re here for, so relax and keep your composure and let’s do it again the next time.’ ”
This is what the UW coaches envisioned from Koenig when they first started recruiting him. Badgers associate head coach Greg Gard remembers Koenig showing up in Madison for a camp after his freshman year at La Crosse Aquinas and displaying traits not often seen in a 15-year-old: a great feel for the game, terrific court vision and a high basketball IQ.
“A lot of people knew about Bronson,” Ryan said. “I think people thought he was one of those guys that matured early, and that he wouldn’t get better. . I didn’t think so. Neither did coach Gard, who was on the recruiting trail for him for a long time. He’s the real deal.”
The more Gard watched Koenig in high school, the more it became apparent he could put up huge scoring numbers if he would have liked. Instead, Koenig went out of his way to get his teammates involved in the offense.
Until recently, Koenig was more of a facilitator than a scorer as he continued to get comfortable in his new role. He was an underclassman in a lineup with three terrific frontcourt players, one of whom is the likely national player of the year, so it was only human nature for Koenig to defer to those around him.
The number of shots Koenig attempted in the Big Ten tournament was about the same as it had been during his first 14 starts at point guard, but it was when he took the shots in Chicago that was noticeable. Even to him.
“I just feel so much more comfortable and just not even thinking about should I shoot it or not,” Koenig said. “I’m just letting it go.”
Koenig scored all but one of his 18 points over the final 17 minutes, 42 seconds of UW’s 80-69 overtime victory over Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.