A thrilling win lifted Wisconsin into a Final Four that includes a huge favorite, another top seed and a party crasher in green
WHEN SAM DEKKER returned to Wisconsin last fall, he was two inches taller, having grown from 6'7" to 6'9", and twice as talkative. Dekker had spent part of his summer playing at a pair of high level camps, the Kevin Durant and LeBron James skills academies, where he had not only impressed pro scouts and fellow players but also honed his trash-talking. In pickup games back on campus Dekker, who was never exactly shy, was even more likely to drill a jumper and let his defender hear about it. "He was like, 'KD talks on the court. I can talk too,' " says sophomore guard Zak Showalter, who added that Dekker's commentary was never mean-spirited. "He had been around a lot of other big-time players and some of it rubbed off."
There's always been something big-time about Dekker, a slashing, sweet-shooting junior forward who, when asked to describe himself as a player, says, "I've got some swagger." He also has a knack for drawing attention from the famous. Most of the world knows by now of his bromance with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was at Staples Center in Los Angeles last weekend to watch the Badgers, the top seed in the West region, beat North Carolina and Arizona to earn a second straight Final Four matchup with Kentucky. He and Rodgers text each other "pretty much every day," Dekker says, shrugging his shoulders as though it's no big deal for a college kid to be buddies with one of the NFL's biggest stars. After Dekker's scorching 20-point second half in the 85--78 win over Arizona last Saturday, when he didn't miss a shot (6 for 6 from the field, including five threes, and 3 for 3 from the foul line), Clippers forward Blake Griffin tweeted his congratulations. Dekker's reply: "Thanks for letting us use Staples for a few days."
Maybe Dekker seems so comfortable rubbing elbows with the elite because he has been a celebrity in Wisconsin since his days at Sheboygan Area Lutheran High, where he was not just a star—earning the state's player of the year honors in 2012—but a legend, thanks to his game-winning three-pointer with five seconds left in the '12 Class 5 championship game. Rivals.com ranked him the 13th in the country as a senior, and he arrived in Madison with the weight of his state's expectations on his shoulders. Dekker was supposed to be the All-America and player of the year candidate that 7-foot forward Frank Kaminsky has become.
Instead he has been Kaminsky's second banana, good but not great, and the Wisconsin faithful have sometimes expressed their disappointment. When a sprained left ankle limited him early this season—he scored five points or fewer in games against Boise State, Alabama-Birmingham, Duke and Marquette—the criticism intensified. "I heard a lot of stuff," Dekker says. " 'What's wrong with Sam? Why isn't he the player we thought? He's gotten worse.' You've just got to go on with a smile and plug through it. They don't understand everything." As much as he tries to downplay it, it's clear that Dekker, who is the Badgers' second-leading scorer with 13.9 points per game, felt unfairly maligned. The Drake lyric he chose for his Twitter bio expresses his true feelings: "They scream out my failures and whisper my accomplishments."
Teammates who are also Wisconsin natives appreciate Dekker's dilemma best. "It was a big deal when he decided to stay in state," says Showalter, who is from Germantown. "And then it was like people expected him to be, I don't know, superhuman." Now, with a healthy ankle and renewed confidence, Dekker is coming closer to that level, displaying an all-around game that is expected to make him a first-round pick in this June's NBA draft. He was named the West's Most Outstanding Player after his two nearly flawless games. In addition to his 27 points against the Wildcats, Dekker poured in 23 in the 79--72 defeat of the Tar Heels, including 15 in the first half as Kaminsky struggled.
Dekker's performance against Arizona, which included a game-clinching rainbow three-pointer from the right wing with 20 seconds left—almost the exact spot as his high school title-winning shot—set Twitter ablaze and made it seem likely that he will again be the toughest Badger for Kentucky to defend in the national semifinals. In the Wildcats' 74--73 win over Wisconsin in last year's Final Four, they were able to contain Kaminsky, who scored only eight points, but Dekker still had 15.
Notre Dame nearly shocked undefeated Kentucky in the Elite Eight last Saturday largely by spreading the floor, which opened the middle for the Irish to attack off the dribble. Wisconsin is capable of approaching the Wildcats' defense the same way, and no Badger is more suited to that strategy than Dekker. In making just four of 14 three-point attempts, Notre Dame was unable to supplement its drive-and-kick game with long-range accuracy. Dekker can, and his versatility will be a challenge for Kentucky. Play off him to take away the drive, and he could go on another three-point spree. Play him tight, and he has the quickness and strength to finish at the rim. "Sometimes I don't use my athleticism the way I should," the 230-pound Dekker says. "When I'm using it to my advantage, it makes the game come a lot more naturally." Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan often reminds him of exactly that. "I've been known to prod," Ryan says, in a tone that indicates that the prodding sometimes comes with the volume cranked up.
There should be no extra encouragement needed on Saturday, when the Badgers will get the chance to topple the mighty Cats and atone for a loss that has been gnawing at them for a year. "When I committed, Coach Ryan said to me that we want to get to Final Fours and we want to bring championships to Wisconsin, and now we're one step closer," Dekker said after beating Arizona. If he helps the Badgers take the final two steps in Indianapolis, that accomplishment will be screamed, not whispered.
Maybe Dekker is comfortable rubbing elbows with the elite because he's been a celebrity in Wisconsin since his days at Sheboygan Area Lutheran High.
MIDWEST VS. WEST
Defensively they do a good job of staying home on the shooters, and they're very versatile—[7-foot] Willie Cauley-Stein can guard a point guard to a five man. The most important thing is, Can you get control of the game? Can you live with some two-pointers going in and really control their shooters? Trey Lyles is their x-factor. He can make shots from inside the arc; he can put it on the floor; they'll post him a little bit. He's really a four man playing the three spot, so he's a matchup nightmare.
They beat you in the last 10 seconds of the shot clock, after you've defended for the entire possession and you think you've shut them down. Don't go crazy trying to double or help on Frank Kaminsky, because most of their other guys can't hurt you if you stay home on them. Interior D is their biggest weakness because they have no shot blocker, so attacking the middle is a must. It's not easy to beat their guards off the dribble, but if you move the ball and open up driving lanes, you can cause them problems.
DUKE VS. KENTUCKY
The Wildcats swarm Okafor, getting him into foul trouble early. Karl-Anthony Towns has another huge game, ensuring Kentucky's perfect season.
SOUTH VS. EAST
You have to have your Jahlil Okafor plans. You can guard him one-on-one and take away everybody else's three-point looks. You can bring double teams to get the ball out of his hands and see if they can make enough threes. You have to be willing to do either one. You also have to have your plan for how you attack their pressure-switching defense. You can post up the switches, and if you have a big guy who can get off scoring shots, Okafor will let you catch the ball. You have to pressure him to foul.
Keep them out of transition—they get deep outlets and come at you hard—and off the offensive glass. In the half-court they run a ton of sets; you watch 10 games, you might see them run the same play twice. You just have to look for tendencies. They're unique in that they run those off-ball screens, and they're really good with pin downs. Their D is typical Michigan State. What they do really well is give a quick hedge and recover. If it gets into a half-court slugfest, they're going to be physical and hard to score on.
Photograph by John W. McDonough For Sports Illustrated
DEKKER'S DAGGERS The Badgers' forward hit five threes in the second half—when he made every shot he took—to help beat Arizona in the Elite Eight for the second straight year.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BO KNOWS Ryan (above, right) embraced Dekker's standout performance in L.A. after Kaminsky (right) tossed in a game-high 29 points.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
[See caption above]
DAVID E. KLUTHO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MASCOTS)