Associated Press
The Wisconsin Badgers advance to the Final Four after their win over Arizona 85-78.

Wisconsin Advances to the Final Four; Koenig Says It All Comes Down to Mental Toughness

Rodney Harwood

Wisconsin sophomore Bronson Koenig has gone from role player to role model to rising star in just two years in the NCAA. Now the Ho-Chunk tribal member is the first Native American to play in back-to-back appearances in the Final Four.

The Badger point guard had six points and three assists in Wisconsin’s 85-78 victory over Arizona to advance to the Final Four in Indianapolis. Earlier in the week, Koenig scored nine points in the Badgers’ 79-72 win over North Carolina in the Sweet 16, including two free throws to give Wisconsin the lead in the final minute.

“Right now it’s about staying mentally tough,” said Koenig told ICTMN. “Everybody at this point in the season is tired and sore, so it comes down to a mental toughness thing.”

Koenig has been dazzling on the court, with a blend of athleticism and natural instincts since taking over as the starting point guard for Traevon Jackson, who went down with a broken right foot. Even though he’s just a sophomore, his maturity and intelligence as the playmaker will be a key to Wisconsin’s national championship hopes.

“I wasn’t expecting this right away, but now that it’s here it’s almost surreal,” he said of another trip to the NCAA basketball’s biggest stage. “Not many teams go to the Final Four two years in a row or even have a chance to play in one. We definitely feel like we can win a national championship. If there was ever a year to do it, this is definitely it with the guys we returned from last year.”

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According to an NCAA report on race and gender demographics, Koenig was just one of 14 American Indian males playing NCAA Division I basketball last season. Saturday’s semifinal with Kentucky is monumental for Indian country in that it includes Koenig (Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin) and Kentucky’s Derek Willis (Inuit Peoples of Alaska). Koenig is the most prominent Native in NCAA men’s basketball today, but it will ensure at least one will advance to the national championship game on Monday.

“I’m getting comfortable and perfectly fine with people knowing I’m Native American,” said Koenig, who took over as starting point guard 21 games ago, and is averaging 12.0 points a game, including .453 percent from 3-point range. “I’ve been super busy, but I like to speak to groups when I can. I did a talk with a Winnebago group when we played Nebraska last year. I just heard they won a state championship. When I was growing up, people like Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson were the guys I looked up to. Kobe Bryant is my favorite current player. I didn’t know too many Native Americans other than Jim Thorpe.”  

The NCAA report also says only 14 of the 5,493 men's Division I basketball players during the 2013-14 season were Native American. In the past seven seasons, there have not been more than 15 D-I men’s players in any season. The average during that span is 9.4.

Koenig is expanding his horizons as a player as well as representing Native Americans, who are rarely seen on such a big stage in the sports world. The 2015 NCAA Tournament included three – Koenig, Willis and Ron Baker (Citizen Band of Potawatomi), who plays for the Wichita State Shockers. “I did all right growing up, but I’d say it’s very important for Native American kids on a reservation to have Native role models,” Koenig said. “It’s good to know there are people out there [reaching new heights]; and they can do it too as long as they put the work in.”

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