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Lucas: Badger bench becoming a strength in March


Koenig

Mike Lucas
MIKE LUCAS
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Varsity Magazine

March 15, 2014

BY MIKE LUCAS
UWBadgers.com

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson made a point without scoring one here Friday night. Both cited the timely offensive contributions from freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig who combined for 29 points in an 83-57 rout of Minnesota in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

38-12.

That was the overall difference in bench points.

“We got a lot off the bench, Nigel and Bronson, especially come to mind, just with their efficiency offensively,” said Gasser, who, along with Jackson, was held scoreless. Together, they had been averaging 21. Not that they took many shots against the Gophers. They were a combined 0-for-5. But, in their scoring void, Hayes and Koenig went 11-of-14.

“They were attacking and being aggressive,” Gasser went on. “That’s the great thing about our team, we’re really balanced. Some guys are not going to have it some nights, so we have a lot of other guys who can step up. Not many teams have that one-two punch that can come off the bench and give you that spark and some good energy.”

Hayes took over the game during a stretch in the second half when he scored seven straight points. He finished with 15 and six rebounds. “When he’s attacking, when he’s being aggressive going towards the basket, he’s a monster to stop, it’s nearly impossible to do,” Gasser said. “He’s going to get fouled or score or both. It was great to see him do that.”

Koenig had a breakout game. He made all five of his shots, including four from 3-point range. “As a young player, any time you can get that first one in, it’s going to make you a little more aggressive,” Gasser said. “Bronson is so good, he’s such a talent, and he knows it. At times this year, he has been on and off, but when he’s on, he’s a handful to stop.”

Nobody was more “on” than Ben Brust who finished with a career-high 29 points. Nobody knows Brust better than Gasser, either. “Ben is a scorer,” he said. “Like Bronson, he got one to fall early and he got more and more confident and he was looking to be aggressive and make plays for us. That’s exactly what we need out of a senior.”

In a far corner of the Wisconsin locker room, a reporter asked Jackson if he had been following some of the top freshman in college basketball. Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins were clearly on the mind of the questioner and he was leading Jackson down that path. Jackson nodded his head. Yeah, sure, he has been keeping track of them.

“Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes,” Jackson said.

He was more than happy to name drop.

•  •  •  •

Gasser was unaware that UW head coach Bo Ryan had reached another milestone in his illustrious 30-year career with his 7ooth win. It puts Ryan in some pretty fast company among active D-1 coaches with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (982); Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (947); North Carolina’s Roy Williams (738) and West Virginia’s Bob Huggins (738).

In trying to digest the victory totals and the company that Ryan is keeping in the coaching fraternity, Gasser sighed and said, “That’s just crazy. All I can think about is that it’s so well-deserved; he has deserved every win. He’s had such a different set of teams and he has won with every group wherever he has been.”

Hayes
“That’s the great thing about our team, we’re really balanced,” Gasser said, referring to Koenig and Hayes (above). “Some guys are not going to have it some nights, so we have a lot of other guys who can step up.”

On why the feat was not even mentioned in the locker room following the game, Gasser sheepishly conceded, “I think we all forgot about it. I don’t think he even cares about that. He wants to win a Big Ten championship.”

On Saturday, the Badgers can take another step towards that goal, a league tournament title, when they take on Michigan State. “It’s going to be a dog-fight as always, physical, half-court game usually, they’ve got some beasts down low and some talented guards,” Gasser said. “But I’m excited for it.”

So is Jackson, who hit a game-winning pull-up jumper over Gary Harris with 2.1 seconds remaining to lift the Badgers past the Spartans, 60-58, on Feb. 9 at the Kohl Center. In what was their only regular season meeting, Wisconsin had four players in double-figures, led by Hayes who had 14. The difference in bench points was 16-6 in the UW’s favor.

Admitting to having a limited background on Ryan’s previous teams, Jackson was quick to point out, “This is the most unique team that I’ve ever played on just because we’ve got so many guys who can play – from someone who hardly plays at all in Vitto Brown to a guy who’s first-team All-Big Ten in Frank (Kaminsky). We’ve got so much depth.”

Kaminsky had a quiet scoring night (6) against Minnesota, but he had a game-high 12 rebounds. Meanwhile, Brown and Jordan Hill, freshman fixtures on the scout team in practice, came off the bench and made the only shots that they attempted. Also contributing in this area was Duje Dukan, a regular member of the rotation.

“I think it was something people were questioning early-on – bench points and production – and it’s definitely something we can hang our hat on down the road,” said Dukan, who knocked down a 3-pointer during an early 14-2 run. Dukan was coming off one of his better games of the season; a seven-point outing last Sunday at Nebraska.

“That was a confidence booster, Coach gave me more minutes and I took advantage by hitting some early shots (against the Huskers) to get going. You never know how long you’re going to be out there but you just have to make the most of it.”

Koenig was an unlikely scoring option given that he had accounted for just four points in the previous four games combined. But after failing to even take a shot in 13 minutes at Nebraska, he vowed to play with more assertiveness. “My shots were falling (against Minnesota), the rim looked 10 feet wider and I was being aggressive,” he said.

Typical of Brust, who would rather talk about others than himself, he had nothing but good things to say about Hayes and how he handled the Gophers tag team of Maurice Walker and Elliott Eliason. “He (Hayes) is the ultimate mismatch,” Brust said.

Hayes, to his credit, deferred to his elders during the post-game press conference and supplied his own interpretation of the Badgers Way by suggesting “the epitome” of that phrase would be Brust and Gasser because “they’re always hustling and they never take plays off” while allowing “no easy possessions for the other team.”

He was more than happy to name drop.

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