INDIANAPOLIS - Count Sam Dekker as one of the many Badgers players who’d like to have their performance against Duke in December back. In a 10-point loss, one head coach Bo Ryan defined as getting “spanked,” Dekker was one of eight Badgers who played and one of six who scored less than seven points.
But he was the only one playing on one healthy ankle.
“It was an up-and-down period,” recalled Dekker. “I still wasn’t practicing at the point. I was limited in everything. I was playing a different style and trying to get my confidence back. Maybe second-guessing things. I put myself in bad situations. I didn’t play up to my level of expectations. I put that game on myself. I told the guys after that’s on me, pick me up, we’re going to make a run here and I’m going to make it up to your guys.”
Over the last three weeks, Dekker has given plenty back to his teammates and the University of Wisconsin. He’s averaging 20.6 points per game in the NCAA tournament, 7.6 points higher than he averaged before the Field of 68 tipped off. He’s shooting 61.3 percent from the field (38 of 62), 60 percent from 3-point range (18 of 30) and is slowly turning into must-see television.
Oh, yeah, he has the Badgers (36-3) on the doorstep of a national championship for the first time in seven decades if they can get past Duke (34-4) tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium. Tipoff is at 8:18 CT.
“It is cool the situation we are in right now,” said Dekker. “You see us joking, goofing around having fun because that’s who we are and we don’t want to change. We also think it’s super cool what we are doing and we’re having fun with it. We’re not too cool for the stage and not trying to be bigger than what this is.”
Dekker was in a similar “big” situation in the fall, but the topic was on his tender ankle and not UW’s title aspirations. Building his body and his game over the summer by attending the prestigious LeBron James Skills Academy and the Kevin Durant Skills Academy, Dekker was dominant during preseason practice. Associate head coach Greg Gard used the word “phenomenal” to describe him.
That changed when he sprained his left ankle in a late-October practice prior to the start of the exhibition season, and the injury lingered into December.
“It definitely was a confidence shaking injury for him,” said Gard.
The question on the status of his ankle became a frequent occurrence. He started the year scoring 15-plus in three straight games but scored four points against Boise State, five against UAB and then struggled against Duke. He played only 24 minutes, went 2-for-5 from the floor, had four rebounds and had no interior game.
“My health had something to do with it,” he said.
Three days later he tallied just two points on 1-of-5 shooting against in-state rival Marquette, causing people to wonder aloud what was wrong with Dekker. Gard referred to Dekker as a track athlete, someone who needs everything to feel good to really click. From the hours of rehab pre- and post-practice and games, everything made him a step slower and tentative.
“He wanted to come back as soon as he could and we kept telling him to take your time,” said senior Josh Gasser. “We didn’t need him back in October-November, but he wanted to play. He tried to and unfortunately he wasn’t able to give it his all. Knowing Sam, he wants to be great. He wants to be really good. He’s put in the time, the effort to be that type of player. He’s got that talent level.”
The talent is undeniable. Likely a lottery pick should be choose to bypass his senior season, Dekker has experienced a significant area of his growth across the board in his scoring (13.9), rebounding (5.4) and field goal percentage (.529). For Gard, the big thing that has grown in Dekker’s game is maturity, which has filtered down to all the corresponding areas.
“He’s developed an understanding of how to become a complete player in areas that don’t involve scoring,” he said. “Sam was so driven early in his career, being motivated by seeing the ball go through the net for himself and that fueled everything else in his game. Now he’s able to do some of those other things, rebounding, defense, making plays for other people, playing north and south with the dribble. He understood, a lot like Frank did last year, I can have an impact on this game and help this team in areas other than just scoring all the time.
“When the scoring comes that’s icing on the cake, but for a lot guys early, they think scoring is the way they can help. When they get all the other things and take care of all those other little details, it’s amazing how easy the scoring becomes. It just happens because you are doing all the other things the right way.”
Feeling that once he got over that barrier and got back to full strength, Dekker knew the offseason work he had put in would start to shine. With 40 minutes of basketball left, he has a chance to make up for one of his worst individual moments of the season and elevate himself into one of the greatest players to have played for the school.
“We just didn’t play good basketball,” said Dekker. “We’re confident that we can have a better showing. This is make-or-break time right now. We don’t want to end the season on a loss.”