Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig broke the hearts of Bill Murray and the rest of Xavier nation with an improbable highly-contested corner three that beat the buzzer and launched the Badgers back to the Sweet 16 for the third straight season. Wisconsin's offensive form was much improved from recent performances, which led to a game that was hard-fought and thrilling throughout.
Xavier looked to be in control after taking a nine-point lead with six minutes left, but the Badgers clawed back and Koenig delivered his first clutch basket with a deep three-pointer with thirteen seconds left in the game to tie it at 66 apiece. Guard Zak Showalter was able to take a charge on the ensuing possession, setting the stage for Koenig's heroics at the buzzer. Here's what we learned and how this sets the Badgers up for a Sweet Sixteen showdown in Philadelphia versus Notre Dame.
1. Bronson Koenig embraced the veteran leadership role.
The narrative for Wisconsin heading into the matchup with Xavier was that the star juniors Koenig and Nigel Hayes had to play better basketball for the team to advance to the second weekend. We'll get to Hayes in a bit, but Koenig definitely answered the call. Bronson's 43-game streak of making at least one three-pointer ended versus Pittsburgh and he decided to make up for it against Xavier, making 6 of 12 three-pointers and tacking on seven rebounds for good measure.
Koenig is proud to be one of the few college basketball players in the country with Native American roots, and he delivered a performance that Native basketball fans across the country will be proud of. He struggled initially with the increased role this year and he hasn't had the most consistent of seasons, but his three-point acumen remains deadly and he is a huge weapon for Greg Gard when he asserts himself on the offensive end.
2. Nigel Hayes is in the middle of an offensive meltdown at the worst time.
The junior forward from Toledo remains one of the most interesting college basketball players in the country, but Hayes has been a disaster on the offensive side of the basketball ever since a solid performance in the regular season loss to Purdue. He has gone 7-for-42 from the field in the past three games and his inability to make a jump shot has made things more difficult for both his teammates and himself. His defender is not respecting his jumper and can instead clog up the lane. Hayes revamped his jumper this year and seemed to have overcome his initial adjustment struggles, but he might be back to square one.
On the bright side, Hayes did well crashing the defensive boards vs. Xavier and smartly deferred to his teammates on offense in the final moments of the game. Again, Wisconsin's tournament ceiling is limited if Hayes isn't his usual versatile self on offense, but the continued emergence of Ethan Happ and strong offensive games from Bronson Koenig and Vitto Brown saved the night in St. Louis.
3. The future is bright for Greg Gard and the Wisconsin program.
The Badgers aren't really supposed to be in the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth time in six years, but Greg Gard is doing a MacGyver-like job at getting his young team to play extremely well in the biggest games on the schedule. Basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy's computer has the Badgers in the preseason top-10 for the 2017 season, which is making the assumption that Hayes will not be making the leap to the NBA. That appears to be a safe bet as Hayes's draft stock is not in the greatest shape at the current moment.
Wisconsin fans have appreciated that Gard is a bit more flexible with his rotation and strategies and that he doesn't subscribe to the "Bo Ryan auto-bench after a turnover" theory. It remains to be seen what Gard's able to accomplish on the recruiting trail but having a Sweet 16 berth in his first year as head coach will be a nice feather in his cap when talking to recruits. Ryan was able to bring the Wisconsin program out of the darkness, and this weekend in St. Louis suggests that Gard might be the coach to take it one level higher. Another difficult showdown with Notre Dame awaits on Friday but the Badgers are playing with house money.