Jess Settles, BTN Basketball Analyst, February 6, 2015

This week, I'm very sophomore-centric, as I take a look at Wisconsin point guard Bronson Koening, Illinois' trio of sophomores and the Big Ten's top second-year players.

Get my three takes below.

1. Bronson Koenig to the rescue
When Wisconsin senior Traevon Jackson fell to the floor in agonizing pain early in the second half Jan. 11 at Rutgers, the dream season Badger fans were hoping for was all of the sudden in jeopardy. Wooden Award favorite Frank Kaminsky was sidelined with concussion-like symptoms, and now in a flash, Wisconsin?s Final Four point guard was out as well.

The rest of the team didn?t handle the adversity very well en route to the Badgers' lone Big Ten defeat. Sam Dekker and Josh Gasser combined to go 0-of-9 from the three-point line, and Rutgers stunned the shaky Badgers with a court storming victory.


Jackson brought experience, toughness, confidence and poise to a team loaded with versatile forwards. He was also a committed defender and the team?s best closer, a lefty with Mariano Rivera-like ice water in his veins, not afraid to fail in tight situations.

Jackson kept things competitive in practice, as well. At one practice I attended, he was yapping back and forth with Wisconsin?s two future NBA draft picks, Kaminsky and Dekker. He could irritate the two stars, which is a healthy trait on a team with high expectations, needing to keep its edge against inferior competition.

?Stop crying for the ?and one? on every play,? Dekker told Jackson at the practice.

?Yeah,? Kaminsky said.

Jackson ignored both of them, as if it was his game and they should get out of his way. He kept attacking, but now he's in street clothes.

Enter Bronson Koenig. The sophomore burst onto the national scene late last season, exploding for 11 points against Kentucky in the national semifinal. He arrived on campus as a two-time state champion and a Wisconsin Player of the Year. His jump shot is textbook, but, even though he appeared in all 37 games last season, Bo Ryan was not counting on him to take over point guard duties this early in his career.

With Jackson out, it was time to step up. Koening's done just that, averaging 12 points, two assists and just 0.8 turnovers in the five games since Jackson's injury. He's fresh off a 15-point effort, one in which he hit 3-of-4 bombs, in a win against star Yogi Ferrell and Indiana.

With Koenig on the floor, the Badgers present opponents with five scorers who can all consistently hit the 3-pointer. Koenig is 39 percent on the season (26-of-36). The Badgers are shooting 49 percent from the floor and leading the Big Ten in scoring (75.7) during conference play.

I think it?s fair to say Koenig and the Badgers are adjusting quite well to life without Jackson. Koenig has been better than Ryan could have hoped. He has been solid defensively, his stroke is on point, and his no-look passes have been effective.

Surprisingly, Koenig has shown the ability to get solid dribble penetration against quicker guards. And while most inexperienced guards struggle with turnovers at the Big Ten level, Koenig and the Badgers have been flirting with perfection on a regular basis, leading the nation in fewest turnovers in a league that prides itself on physical defense.

Wisconsin is built for a Final Four return, but if Jackson does not return, it will be the poise and toughness of Koenig in the Sweet 16 or Elite 8 that could assist the Badgers. The two games before the Final Four are when the elite, physical backcourts come knocking, and Koenig will have to be up for the challenge.

The Wisconsin native understands the importance of Badger Basketball to the state, and currently he is seeking a Big Ten championship. The Badgers are the clear favorites at the halfway point of the season. Koenig is a big reason why.


2. Sophomores sparking Illinois
Illinois coach Jon Groce has a trio of special guards who bring a plethora of offensive firepower to the court each night. Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, and Jaylon Tate have been just what the doctor ordered after the injuries and suspensions to Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby. Throw in the season-ending injury to Tracy Abrams before the season, and the veterans have given Groce and his staff more gray hairs than they can count.

The trio accounts for 30 points per game, headlined by Hill (14.6). With senior Ahmad Starks struggling at point guard, Groce turned the duties over to Tate, who has been a very calming influence on this quick-shooting team.

Nnanna Egwu, Illinois' leader and all-time leading shot blocker, gave Tate the ultimate compliment when he said the sophomore is in full command of the game and is really good at anticipating where guys will be. Against Minnesota, Tate had nine assists and no turnovers; he's averaging 4.4 dimes in Big Ten play.

When Tate passes to open people, he is usually getting the ball to Nunn or Hill. In Big Ten play, Nunn is averaging 14.4 points. He is cat quick and unafraid of any challenge. The Chicago Simeon product is a cold-blooded shooter from the baseline corner and will take on any big in the lane. He is crafty on defense and runs the floor like a track star.

Hill has now established himself as one of country?s best sophomores. One of the Big Ten?s most improved players, Hill has raised his scoring from 4.4 points per game as a freshman to 14.6. With Illinois' season in jeopardy, following a 10-5 start and an impressive Maryland team coming to Champaign, Hill looked like a young Scottie Pippen on his way to 28 points in an upset victory.

In a shootout with star Penn State senior D.J. Newbill, Hill erupted for 27 points, including a high degree of difficulty left-handed drive for the game-winner. Hill and Nunn told me before the game that being the go-to guys at this point in their careers has been a valuable experience that will pay big dividends down the road.

Due to the play of these talented sophomores, Illinois has scratched and clawed its way back to .500 in the league, and it is a major factor in the muddied middle of the Big Ten race.


3. Plenty more sophomores
We've already discussed several talented Big Ten sophomores, but there are so many more. This class is shaping up to be a great one.

Here?s my current All-Big Ten sophomore team:

  • Malcolm Hill, Illinois
  • Zak Irvin, Michigan
  • Troy Williams, Indiana
  • Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
  • Marc Loving, Ohio State

That's a lot of great talent. The league is in good hands, if these guys stick around for another year or more.