With a trip to the Final Four on the line, Wisconsin and Arizona traded blows as a junior forward’s offensive outburst powered the Badgers to the next round.
That statement could refer to both last year’s NCAA Tournament and this year’s. The only thing that changed was that junior forward’s name.
Last season as a junior, Frank Kaminsky dropped 28 points in the Badgers’ Elite Eight matchup with the Wildcats. He shot 11-of-20 from the floor and grabbed 11 boards, becoming a nationally recognized name in the process.
Last weekend, Sam Dekker scored a career-high 27 points to send Arizona home in heartbreak for the second straight year. Dekker’s lights-out, 8-of-11 shooting included a Ben Brust-esque 5-of-6 from beyond the arc.
“[My teammates] know I can score and sometimes they just have to light that fire underneath me and get me going and say, ‘It’s your time to take over,’” Dekker said. “Those are the types of people that you need around to give you confidence and get you to play with a swagger.”
Kaminsky and Dekker weren’t one-game wonders in their respective breakout tournaments. The Tank dropped 19 points apiece in Wisconsin’s 2014 wins over Oregon and Baylor, and averaged 16.4 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting for the tournament.
So far this tournament, Dekker has averaged 21.8 points per game while shooting 60.4 percent from the field. He set a career high with 23 points against North Carolina in the Sweet 16 before surpassing that total two days later.
“Frank last year figured out at the end of the year how he could impact the game in so many ways other than just scoring,” said associate head coach Greg Gard. “[Dekker’s] overall game has improved a lot and a lot of the same things that Frank did at this time last year, Sam is on that same track.”
Both Dekker and Kaminsky have used spectacular NCAA Tournament runs to vault themselves into the national conversation and cement themselves in program lore. But the paths they took to get there are in stark contrast.
Dekker committed to Wisconsin early, before his junior year of high school. A five-star recruit out of Sheboygan Area Lutheran, he won 2012’s Mr. Basketball Award as the top prep player in the state. 247Sports ranked him as the eighth-best player in the class of 2012.
Plenty of Badger fans knew who Dekker was prior to the WIAA state high school tournament, but his performance in the Division 5 championship game solidified his reputation. Dekker dropped 40 points, including 12 in the final minute, and buried Racine Lutheran with a last-second 3-pointer to win the game. That shot even made No. 1 on SportsCenter’s top plays.
It created massive expectations for Dekker before his collegiate career even began. Once it did, fans quickly criticized him because he wasn’t scoring 20 points every night, saying he was playing too passively or not living up to the hype.
“Fans are going to be fans. They can say what they want, they can watch the games, but they don’t know anything,” Dekker said. “They’re not there in the morning, they’re not there at night shooting with us or in the weight room … so they don’t really know anything that’s going on in the circle of the team.”
Compare Dekker’s expectations with those of Kaminsky. He was a three-star recruit out of Lisle, Ill., whose only other scholarship offers came from Bradley, DePaul, Northern Illinois, Northwestern and Southern Illinois.
While Dekker’s other offers came from similar mid-major schools, his early commitment likely scared multiple blue blood programs away. But Kaminsky didn’t commit until his senior year of high school was nearly finished, meaning Wisconsin was the only big-time basketball program to take a chance.
As Kaminsky racks up player of the year awards, that chance has obviously paid off. But it took a long time for him to get there. He averaged just 2.9 points and 1.6 rebounds per game in his first two seasons combined, while making just two starts.
Dekker was a major contributor from the outset, becoming just the fourth true freshman to start a game during Bo Ryan’s tenure. But like Kaminsky, it wasn’t until his junior year that he truly showcased just how special a talent he was.
This year, Dekker has averaged 13.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game on 52.6 percent shooting. As for Kaminsky last year? He averaged 13.9 points as well while shooting 52.8 percent from the floor and grabbing 6.3 boards per game.
“The biggest thing is that [Dekker’s] really maximizing his potential. He’s starting to realize how much of a complete player he can be,” Gard said. “Everyone talks about his scoring and what he’s done numbers-wise but there’s so many other pieces of his game that have elevated and gone to another level that have allowed his scoring to come up.”
After this year’s Final Four, Kaminsky will move on to the NBA and Dekker will likely leave school early to join him. Though their collegiate careers began very differently, each player will leave Wisconsin having been the face of two of the best Badger teams in program history.
Jack Baer contributed to this report.