INDIANAPOLIS — Duke already defeated Wisconsin, 80-70, during the 2014-15 season when the two No. 1 seeds matched up in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 4 at the Kohl Center.
But the Badgers didn’t have the benefit of playing with a healthy Sam Dekker the first time around. After spraining his left ankle during practice on Oct. 24, the junior forward was still limited with a lingering ankle issue during the game against the Blue Devils.
Dekker only played 24 minutes against Duke — while never committing a foul in the game — and was limited to five points and four rebounds. He only attempted five field goals and clearly lacked the explosiveness that we’ve seen from him during his tremendous NCAA tournament run.
“I watched part of that game and I just look different, too,” Dekker said of the first Duke game this season. “I was trying to play my game and wasn’t playing well. I looked real slow. Hopefully I can have a better performance and that’s something I want to do.”
The long recovery from the ankle injury also put Dekker in a different place mentally. After the loss to Duke, Dekker pinned the blame on himself, even though a number of his teammates had off-nights as well. A tremendous offseason and preseason from the junior drew rave reviews from scouts and coaches and everything changed when Dekker got hurt. Suddenly, the game that was starting to come so easy to him was slowed down.
“It definitely was a confidence-shaking injury for him,” Wisconsin assistant coach Greg Gard said. “He was really playing well — phenomenal — during the preseason before we had played any games. He was dominant in practice. Obviously, then he had the injury and he probably came back along a little too soon. He was never fully able to get back in rhythm.
“Sam’s kind of like a track athlete: Everything has to feel good. And I think when he’s feeling good, like he is right now through the last month — and he feels healthier and feels stronger — obviously he’s coming out of the blocks a lot better than November and December.”
Duke also understands that they can’t take Dekker lightly based on how he played in the first matchup. They know he’s a completely different player now. Dekker’s confidence level is very high after career-high scoring totals in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 and following that up with some huge plays in the Final Four against Kentucky.
Blue Devil freshman forward Justise Winslow has been watching a fully healthy Dekker tear up the NCAA tournament and he’s anxious for the challenge of playing against him at 100 percent.
“I’ve seen him at full strength and that’s what’s scary about him. It’s his ability to perform, especially on the big stage,” Winslow said. “He was [injured] in our first meeting, so you can’t really take a lot away from that and his performance because he was injured. I’m just looking forward to facing him at 100 percent.”
The personnel for both Duke and Wisconsin has changed since December. Rasheed Sulaimon scored 14 points for the Blue Devils against the Badgers and he’s no longer with the Duke basketball program. Traevon Jackson had a season-high 25 points for Wisconsin and he’s only playing a few minutes a game now after recovering from a broken foot.
Dekker is the key difference maker the second time around for the Badgers. He’s elevated himself into the NBA lottery conversation and is one of four projected lottery picks, according to Draft Express, playing in the national championship game.
Wisconsin and Dekker are feeling as confident as ever now that he is injury free and elevating his play to a new level.
“Hopefully this time we will be better,” Dekker said. “Justise Winslow is obviously a great defender but it shouldn’t matter who is in front of me; I still expect myself to play well. I just need to play up to my potential in that game and I’m confident I can do it.