Koenig calmly leads Wisconsin past Nebraska
MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s basketball team took the floor Thursday night with a small measure of uncertainty for a unit considered to be a national title contender. The most significant variable centered on what ways, if any, point guard Bronson Koenig’s insertion into the starting lineup in place of an injured Traevon Jackson would alter the team’s trajectory.
The answer? Not at all. And perhaps only further skyward.
No. 7 Wisconsin pulled away from Nebraska for an impressive 70-55 victory at the Kohl Center in a game that showed the new-look Badgers resemble much of the old-look Badgers: talented, efficient and — most important — victorious.
Koenig finished with 11 points on 4 of 5 field-goal shooting, including 3 of 4 3-pointers. But the stat line that stood out most was his career-high 37 minutes. He played every second of the first half with the point guard rotation thinned, sat out all of 39 seconds of game clock midway through the second half and finally exited for good with 2:25 remaining and Wisconsin holding a sizeable 69-48 lead.
What did Koenig expect of himself?
"I expected to play a little more than my average but not quite 37," Koenig said. "It felt good to have some freedom out there."
If Wisconsin (16-2, 4-1) wants to become a Big Ten championship team with a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, it will be Koenig’s responsibility to put the Badgers in that position. Jackson underwent successful surgery earlier Thursday to repair a broken right foot sustained Sunday during Wisconsin’s 67-62 loss at Rutgers, and he’s expected to miss roughly the next six weeks, which would put his return around the cusp of March.
That means Koenig, who was averaging 20.5 minutes per game before Thursday, will see a significant increase in time and, presumably, on-court productivity.
"He passed the test in his first home start," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "He did a great job tonight running the offense. Was very poised and just looked relaxed out there. I’ve played with Bronson a lot in my past. I know what the kid can do. He can run the show. He can run the team better than most guys in the nation, I think.
"Having the luxury to fall back on a kid like him when Trae’s out is a very big bonus for our team. I don’t think we’re going to miss a stride with B at the helm. He did a really good job tonight. We’re going to build off that."
Badgers coach Bo Ryan noted Koenig’s teammates offered encouragement this week, which helped to relax the sophomore in approaching his new role as a starter. The fact Koenig grew up a Wisconsin native and understood Ryan’s system better than most underclassmen also contributed to a lack of nerves.
"He played well," Ryan said. "We know he has ability. His teammates know. They trust him and he’s been on the floor in a lot of big situations in his two years here, year and a half. . . .
"He knows what I expect. He’s followed our program forever. He knows what his position is. He knows what it entails. He did what I thought he would do."
Nebraska coach Tim Miles described Koenig as the type of player that "hunts jumpers." That is, someone far less inclined to make trouble in the paint, draw fouls and get to the free throw line. Indeed, Koenig has taken all of six free throws this season, 14 in his two-year career and did not attempt any on Thursday. Jackson, meanwhile, had taken 41 free throws this season.
The plan to neutralize Koenig, then, was to make sure defenders stayed over the top of screens so he could not simply pop a 3-pointer. That strategy, however, did not work for Nebraska (10-7, 2-3). Koenig buried a 3-pointer to put Wisconsin ahead 15-13 early, hit a jumper for a 26-19 lead, made a 3 with a minute left in the half for a 34-27 lead and drilled his final 3 in the second half for a 59-39 edge. All this despite Nebraska’s attempt to put all-Big Ten guard Terran Petteway (27 points) on him during second-half stretches.
"Terran just hops out on him, kind of has his hands down and he j’s him up for a 3," Miles said. "So I thought he played really well and did what his strengths are, which are make jumpers. And we couldn’t take that away from him, which was disappointing."
The rest of Wisconsin’s lineup also fell back into place. Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky scored a team-high 22 points and returned from a one-game hiatus after suffering concussion-like symptoms last week. Other Badgers players that scored in double figures were forward Nigel Hayes (13 points), Dekker (11 points) and Koenig.
Koenig, who was tentative on his jump shots earlier in the season, said he played with more confidence than usual — likely because he didn’t have to look over his shoulder for a substitution. With Jackson out and Jordan Hill using a redshirt season, Koenig is the only true point guard on the roster, though Josh Gasser can slide over in a pinch.
"I knew that I needed to step up, and the coaches and my teammates instilled confidence in me," Koenig said. "That helped a lot."
No, Wisconsin still is not as strong without Jackson, whose streak of 84 consecutive starts ended Thursday. The back end of the rotation is limited and the starting backcourt probably will need to log more minutes.
But the Badgers are still plenty talented. And they should be all the more ready for a postseason run come March when Jackson returns.
"Obviously beating a team like Nebraska the way we did is pretty positive," Kaminsky said. "That’ll give us some confidence going forward. Bronson stepped up and played really well. Ran the offense very well. We’re excited about the opportunity we have in front of us. It sucks losing Trae, especially his leadership. But we’re all praying for a speedy recovery for him."
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