MADISON, Wis. — The Bronson Koenig during Wisconsin’s open gyms this summer did not resemble the Bronson Koenig you read about in newspapers or saw in person during his high school days. That is to say, he wasn’t nearly as good.
For a player of Koenig’s caliber — all-state, Associated Press Player of the Year — this was particularly frustrating as he tried to make a good first impression on his new teammates. A hamstring injury he suffered during his high school track season in the spring had lingered into the summer. And as he tried to play through it and overcompensate, he began feeling lower-back soreness and stiffness.
“My lower back was just really tight for like four months straight,” Koenig said. “It was really nagging. It sucked really bad.”
The persistent pain became too much, and Koenig opted to take the first week off when Wisconsin began its official practices in late September. The week, it turns out, did wonders.
“I don’t know why I didn’t do that sooner,” Koenig said. “I started coming into my own as a player and had the confidence like I used to have and everything. Doing the same kind of stuff I’ve done my whole life.”
Koenig, who has been at full strength for only a few weeks, has done enough to put himself in position to see the first minutes of his college career when No. 20 Wisconsin opens its season at 6 p.m. Friday against St. John’s at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“You can tell he was a little sore every day,” Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. “A little mentally struggling a little bit just because he wasn’t fully healthy and he couldn’t show his stuff. He took a little bit of time off just to get himself feeling good again and it definitely shows. He’s scoring in all ways. He’s a great passer. Defensively, he’s getting a lot better. He’s definitely going to help us out a lot this year.”
Koenig, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard from La Crosse, Wis., figures to earn minutes as the second guard off the bench behind junior George Marshall. Wisconsin assistant coach Lamont Paris said his natural point guard skills and willingness to work hard on defense gives him a chance to succeed on the court as a freshman — a rarity during the Bo Ryan era.
“He’s really good in ball screen situations,” Paris said. “He’s really good with decision making in transition. Some of the passes that he throws guys, they’ve got to have their hands ready at all times. The ball just pops up in the right spot.”
Koenig’s role will surely be different than it was when he played at Aquinas High School. There, he averaged 17.0 points and 4.4 assists as a senior and led the school to its second state championship in three seasons.
During Wisconsin’s exhibition game against UW-Platteville last week, Koenig played 14 minutes off the bench. He didn’t score and shot just once, but the more games he plays, the more comfortable he will become in the Badgers’ offense.
“He’s getting healthier,” Ryan said. “He’s showing that physically he’s shaking off a little bit of that hamstring issue that he had, which led to some problems with his back, which made him a little bit behind. He’s coming forward with that. He can pass. He can see the floor. He can shoot. He’s learning how to play defense on this level, which you have to. Especially now with your feet, positioning is extremely important.”
Koenig’s first real college action will come against a team that could be one of the most difficult opponents Wisconsin faces all season. St. John’s finished 17-16 last season and lost in the second round of the NIT. But expectations are high for the Red Storm, who return 91.6 percent of their scoring and 88.3 percent of their rebounding off last year’s team and add sensational freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan.
Junior D’Angelo Harrison is the team’s leading returning scorer (17.8 points per game) and returns after being suspended the final six games last season for having a bad attitude. JaKarr Sampson, the Big East Rookie of the Year last season, averaged 14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds.
Red Storm sophomore center Chris Obekpa, who led the country in blocks last season at 4.03 per game, was suspended for both exhibitions this season because of a violation of university rules. But he will be back for the Wisconsin game. Jordan, meanwhile, was named the preseason conference Rookie of the Year.
The St. John’s team, despite its immense talent, is incredibly unpredictable — part of the reason the Red Storm are not ranked in the preseason top 25 polls and were picked to finish fifth in the Big East. St. John’s barely escaped Division II San Francisco State 82-80 on Saturday and crushed Division II Humboldt State 106-39 on Monday during its two exhibition games.
Koenig has never faced the athleticism and quickness he’ll encounter if he sees the floor Friday. But he’s eager to see where he stands as he begins a college career — at full strength — that holds so much promise.
“With a good team like that?” he said. “Definitely.”