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Sam Dekker's focus is on this season and this Wisconsin basketball team.
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - Sam Dekker said he doesn’t worry about outside pressures. The University of Wisconsin forward believes that nothing positive comes from reading about or listening to people not involved with the basketball program in Madison – be that fans or the press. So as he starts his sophomore season, Dekker’s focus is inward.
“I can’t pay attention to that stuff. Media puts that stuff out there for people to read and that’s not for us to look in to,” he said during the team’s media day earlier this month. “That’s going to play games with your mind. Mentally, that won’t put you into a good spot. As much as you can keep that out of your system the better. Just have to focus on what’s going on in the locker room and on the court.”
The key phrase in that statement is, ‘as much as you can keep that out’. Because Dekker – like any 19-year-old college kid – is intensely plugged into social media and the Internet, and it’s unlikely he’s able to unplug himself to the point where he doesn’t see or hear any of the things that are written and said about him. But he stayed steadfast to that belief.
“I don’t really feel those outside pressures,” he maintained. “I don’t put those on myself. I don’t have to worry about that stuff. I keep that out of my head. People can talk what they want on Twitter, Facebook and the newspapers and stuff, but at the end of the day what matters is what’s going on in the locker room with my teammates and myself.”
Whether you choose to believe him or not the facts remain that after showing up to Wisconsin as one of the more highly touted players in state history, there are expectations for him – both while in college and after.
Most believe that if Dekker gave up his final two years of eligibility following this season he’d be, very likely, a first-round pick in next June’s NBA Draft. Right now, ESPN’s Chad Ford projects him as the 16th best prospect in that draft. But for Dekker it’s not about the summer of 2014.
“No. Not really,” Dekker answered when asked whether he thought about going to the NBA. “I mean, obviously as a basketball player, you want to get to that level. But you’ve got to focus each day and take it one day at a time. I’m a Wisconsin Badger right now. I expect to be a Wisconsin Badger for a long time. I’m going to get better every day. All I have to worry about right now is getting our team a Big Ten championship and a National Championship. We’ve got a group of guys that is ready for that, and we can’t worry about the outside stuff.”
The group of guys Dekker refers to is a relatively young one. Six new freshmen – five on scholarship -- replace a senior class that accounted for 42-percent of the scoring and 53-percent of the team’s rebounds a year ago. Gone are forwards Jared Berggren (119 games), Mike Bruesewitz (131 games) and Ryan Evans (138 games). In their place are forwards Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown and Aaron Moesch, along with guards Bronson Koenig, Jordan Hill and Riley Dearring.
“I just want to see how we play together,” Dekker said. This is almost a new group and a very different core from last year because guys like (Berggren), (Evans) and (Bruesewitz) are gone. Guys that were there for a long time, playing three years in the system and coach (Ryan) didn’t have to worry about them because he knew they’d come out and compete. We’ve got new guys filling those gaps a little bit.
Hayes, at 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, and Brown, at 6-foot-8, 237 pounds, appear to be the best suited to fill the holes left in the frontcourt.
“It might be new faces, but those guys can be just as effective, if not more effective down the line,” Dekker said. “I see this as a team with a lot of potential to do big things. I think over the course of the season you’ll see the maturation of our young guys going out there and playing well and getting used to the big venues we’re going to play at. It’ll be an exciting year.”
And the Badgers are counting on Dekker to help make it an exciting year. Following a freshman season that saw him average 9.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game, Wisconsin is expecting more of the 6-foot-7 Dekker. And he’s expecting more from himself as well.
“You just have to stay grounded and realize there is always someone better than you,” Dekker said. “I feel like I haven’t even reached half of what my potential could be. I have a ton of work to do in every aspect of my game. Things can only go up. Again, I feel like I haven’t even (scratched) the surface of where I could be as a player and person. I’ve just got to keep working every day and keep getting better.”
One area that he admits needs improvement is his defense. There were times last year that Dekker found himself on the bench after a poor possession on the defensive end -- something that Ryan won’t tolerate from a senior much less a true freshman.
“He knows he has to get better with his feet,” Ryan said. “He has to get better defensively. He has to be able to finish better. He has to be more consistent with his shot. He has to -- you know, list of about 20 more things, but I'll stop there.
“Just like every other player, he's learned a lot. He's in the process of really tinkering with being pretty special. And it's going to be on him how far he wants to take it.”
One teammate, junior guard Josh Gasser, already sees major growth from last season.
“Sam’s going to be great,” said Gasser, who didn’t get to play with Dekker last season due to a knee injury. “He expects a lot of himself. We expect a lot of him offensively. He’s getting better defensively. He’s hitting the glass more. He’s doing all the little things more than last year, which just makes him that much better of a player. He can score at will any way he wants. He’s going to be recognized that way, but he’s really improved the other aspects of his game, which is really going to help us out.”
Dekker is among a class of kids that know very little about the “Faithful 5,000” that came to the Field House to watch a struggling program play. All they know of Wisconsin basketball is the success of the last 15 years – whether it was under Dick Bennett or Ryan.
“No, we don’t talk about it because it’s expected of us. And we know that coming in,” Dekker said of Ryan’s streak of never finishing lower than fourth in the Big Ten. “When you’re committing here, and coming here as a freshman, you go into a realm of where it’s expected to be good, and you’re expected to have great teams. We carry that with pride and that drives us every day. We see the banners of Big Ten titles, NCAA tournament appearances. You see that NCAA (streak). You expect nothing less than being very, very good.”
Which will be paramount in a strong Big Ten this year. Dekker said you could throw a dart at a piece of paper with the conference members on it and find a good basketball team. Five schools are ranked in the USA Today Coaches Poll – Michigan State at No. 2, Michigan at No. 9, Ohio State at No. 10, Wisconsin at No. 21 and Indiana at No. 24. Two more – Iowa and Illinois – are receiving votes. So the young Badgers – Dekker included – will need to gel quickly if they are to make it 13 straight Top 4 finishes for Ryan.
“As a young team, a lot of people think we won’t have guys that are necessarily ready, but I think we have a group of guys that are just gamers. We just want to play. (We have) some high energy guys and guys that aren’t going to back down from a challenge,” Dekker said. “That’s the type of guys we have, and when we play together and have that high energy we’re going to be tough to stop in the Big Ten and non-conference games. I think we’re going to be ready to play. And I think we may be a problem this year for some teams.”
Wisconsin will hold their annual Red/White scrimmage on Saturday night at the Kohl Center. Admission is free and the event starts at 5 p.m.
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin