Sam Dekker (15) and the Badgers still have work to do to accomplish their season goals.
Not done yet
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - The University of Wisconsin’s run to the 2014 Final Four began more than a year ago.
Sitting in a locker room in the bowels of the Spirit Center in Kansas City last March, Sam Dekker said he didn’t want to experience the feeling he had at that moment ever again. 12th-seeded Ole Miss had just kicked the fifth-seeded Badgers to the curb in the second round of the NCAA tournament, 57-46. UW shot a season-low 25.4 percent and watched the interior of their defense – populated by three seniors – get pushed around by the Rebels.
So Dekker sat there, while recognizing it was too late for Jarred Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz, and vowed not to allow another season to end with such a whimper. He promised unparalleled effort during the summer and guaranteed that the players returning would not be asked the same, “what happened”, questions at the end of the following year.
On Monday, as the Badgers started preparing for their national semifinal game against Kentucky (28-10) on Saturday night in Arlington, Texas, Dekker thought back to that day in that quiet locker room.
“I was pretty up front saying, we're going to be working really hard this next season to not let this feeling happen again, and I fully meant that,” said Dekker following practice at the Kohl Center. “If we wanted to reach our goals and if we wanted to do something big with the group we had, we've got to put in the work, and we've got to have the right mindset. If you have the right mindset going into anything, there's not much you can't do. Especially when you're together with 16 other great guys, you can get almost anything done.
“We all bought into it together, and we've gone on this ride together.”
Dekker and the rest of the returning players put in the work during the summer and it was evident to UW coach Bo Ryan, when they went to Canada for a five-game exhibition tour, that there was something special about them.
“I was a lot tougher on this group than I was on last year's group,” Ryan said after Wisconsin's 64-63 win over Arizona on Saturday night gave the coach his first Final Four berth in Division I. “I just wasn't going to accept them not understanding that they could be pretty good.”
Though they had to replace their entire starting frontline, they got a significant jump in play from junior Frank Kaminsky, who went from averaging 4.2 points per game to 14.1 and upped his rebounding average from 1.8 to 6.4. The Lisle, Ill., native earned All-Big Ten honors and was named the West Regional’s Most Outstanding Player.
Junior Traevon Jackson went from a liability in his first year running the point for Ryan, to a key contributor who was put on the All-West Regional team for his work over the past two weekends. Though he still turns the ball over at the same rate as last year (2.1 per game), he’s shooting 38.4 percent from beyond the arc (up from 29.3) and has increased his scoring, assists and rebounds per game over last year.
Dekker earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after raising his scoring output to 12.4 points per game and was the second-leading rebounder at 6.1 per game, while being forced to play out of position at the four spot.
Meanwhile, Ben Brust, the lone senior in the rotation, continued his sharpshooting ways, while averaging 12.8 points per game.
The return of junior Josh Gasser after missing a year with a knee injury helped the team significantly, as did the addition of freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig.
Following a 4-1 record on the Canada trip, they started a school-best 16-0 with wins over teams like Florida and Virginia, who would go on to earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
But they were flawed. The normally stout defense under Ryan was M.I.A. during long stretches of the first two months of the season, especially during a three-game losing streak near the start of Big Ten play. All three losses featured teams shooting 50 percent or better from the field – highlighted by an embarrassing 13-point loss to Minnesota in the Twin Cities where the Gophers hit 58.9 percent of their shots. It forced them to look inward and hit the film room hard.
Though they would lose two of their next three games, it appeared they had found some answers on that end of the floor. And when they started hitting shots like they did earlier in the season UW ran off an eight-game winning streak.
“You can learn a lot more from losses than from wins sometimes, kind of wake you up a little bit,” Gasser said. “It wasn't fun at the time, but I think ultimately it helped us in the end. It helped us get to this point, and we just got better.”
Those tough times paid dividends in the NCAA’s. When the Badgers trailed American 17-10 early in their opener they didn't overreact and ended up winning by 40. In their second game, Oregon led by 14 at one point in the first half but UW fought back and ended up taking it 85-77. And in their win over the Wildcats on Saturday night, they were behind the entire first half before storming back and eventually winning in overtime. In all three situations they had those difficult times to fall back on. And they knew how to react to the situation.
“I think that now, when we get down in some of these games, that it definitely helps being in that situation before and not having that look of just, ‘oh, crap, we're in the same thing’,” Jackson said. “It's more of a let's fight through it and let's keep persisting. It's been good for us to experience that.”
This team has been together longer than any other under Ryan but they seem to still enjoy being around one another. Most of the players live in the same apartment complex and the freshmen all live together, so even when they aren’t on the basketball court they are still in constant contact.
“We've gone through the ups and downs and haven’t broken apart,” Dekker said. “That's what makes a special team, and a team that can get along on and off the court is a team that's going to stick together through everything. We've been able to do that to this point.”
Dekker emphasized the ‘to this point’ part of his answer. That’s because this group isn’t done.
“We're proud of what we've done as a team together, and we set goals in the summer where we wanted to be, and this is a place where we wanted to get,” the sophomore said. “We didn't want to just stop there. We didn't want to get there and let it come short. We want to win this next 40 and then hopefully get to another one and win another.
“We have all intentions of going down there and reaching another goal of ours, and we're excited to do it.”
In that locker room last March, Dekker wasn’t the only voice. Jackson talked as well about not wanting to feel the sting of a season end the way it did, which included him going 2 of 10 against Ole Miss. He vowed not to send this year’s senior class out with anything less than a bang.
“We're definitely proud of how far we've come, the obstacles we've overcome this year. It's been a great ride,” Jackson said. “We had expectations from the beginning of the season back in the summertime. It's still not done yet. We're excited we made the Final Four. We're excited to go down and have an opportunity. But (completing) the assignment is still (out there).”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin