Tony Cartagena covers the Wisconsin Badgers for ESPN Wisconsin
MADISON, Wis. – Would the Wisconsin Badgers be headed to the unofficially renamed (UW) Madison Square Garden to play Florida in the Sweet 16 if it wasn’t for Bronson Koenig?
Simple answer: NO.
First, let’s start with his teammates. Nigel Hayes was an absolute beast against the No.1 overall seeded Villanova Wildcats. When his number was called, Hayes would put the ball on the deck and relentlessly drive to the bucket. Time and time again he either scored at the rim, or drew a whistle and attempted two free throws. It takes a confident senior to compare his late game isolation move heroics to one of Michael Jordan’s ultimate highlights. But, if the shoe fits, lace them up.
Despite finding himself in foul trouble for the second consecutive NCAA tournament game, sophomore Ethan Happ was a defensive tree late in the game. He stood tall in the paint and forced Big East Player of the Year, Josh Hart, and other Wildcats to shoot over his out-stretched arms, avoiding his fifth and eliminating foul.
Vitto Brown made heady play after heady play, on both ends of the floor, one after another, epitomizing what it means to have senior leadership come through in the clutch in March.
Wisconsin trailed by seven points with just about five minutes to play. Koenig was finally called off of the bench. He had been sitting since committing his fourth foul, albeit on a questionable charge call, with 13 minutes to play in the second half.
Eight minutes of unwanted rest. For a shooter in an unfamiliar gym. That’s the recipe for an air-balling disaster.
Without blinking, Koenig scored eight points down the stretch. The deficit officially erased. Wisconsin busted brackets everywhere while clinching their fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16.
Last year – the Badgers made it equally as far after Koenig splashed home a buzzer beating jumper against Xavier in the Round of 32. So, yeah, the 6-foot-4 guard knows a thing or two about delivering in do-or-die moments.
The Final Four reasons you should be cheering for Bronson Koenig
Wisconsin through and through – The La Crosse, WI. native isn’t the standard ‘former walk-on who worked hard and took advantage of his opportunity’ feel good story that you’d generally hear from this University. People forget that Koenig was as highly recruited nationally as other Wisconsin natives JP Tokoto, Sam Dekker and Henry Ellenson. Those three players, by the way, all ended up being NBA draft picks.
Roy Williams, head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels, travelled to watch Koenig play prep ball. He, along with Duke’s Mike Krzyewski extended the point guard scholarships. Some outlets rated him as high as a top-30 recruit in the country.
Unlike Tokoto and Ellenson, Koenig selected Wisconsin. His freshman year he played in the Final Four. As a sophomore he started in the National Championship Game. The Xavier shot was his junior season. There’s only one thing left for him to do for his home state - hoist the trophy.
Inspirational – Koenig’s pre-season car ride from Wisconsin to the Standing Rock Camp in North Dakota garnered a ton of National attention. But you can never shed too much light on a story like this. A college student-athlete, on the verge of his make-or-break senior season, drove 14 hours to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. He stayed in a tent, protested with a collective of native people, like himself, representing over 300 nationwide tribes.
During the trip, Koenig organized Basketball Camps at a local high school for the youth protestors. The camps were so successful, and offered relief from the stress of the pipeline protests, that, by request, he actually ran more camps. These took place outdoors and were open to all.
This story of sacrifice and genuine care and concern is best told by Koenig himself. He wrote his recollection for The Player’s Tribune.
Tough as nails – Last season, Koenig needed time off to rest a knee injury. Unfortunately, Wisconsin started the year with a 9-9 record and they didn’t have the luxury, or point guard depth, to give him any rest. So he toughed it out.
After a few weeks of rest following the season. He went to California, where he’d train twice per day, cutting weight, gaining muscle and improving his overall game.
This season, Koenig revealed to ESPN Wisconsin that his collegiate career was a bit disappointing, in his critical opinion, and he wasn’t able to perform at peak levels because of nagging injuries here and there. After some rest down the stretch this year, everything looks to be clicking on all cylinders.
Ankles – Oooh’s and ahhh’s fill the arena when Koenig stops on a dime, rips the ball from one hand to the other, watching a defender skid by as if he slipped on a banana peel playing Mario Kart.
A very underrated part of his skill set are his handles. Remember the And-1 Mixtape Tour with Hot Sauce and The Professor? Koenig could hang with those guys. He puts on a show with the ball in his hands. Generally, creating space that’s followed by a high-arching shot and a splash.
A splash the Badgers can depend on, and have depended on, time and time again, especially in clutch situations.