The most common narrative hovering over Wisconsin basketball for the last 14 years under Bo Ryan is that it's a program that does more with less. Ryan has built a perennial Sweet 16 threat through an undying dedication to his system rather than by recruiting NBA-caliber talent.
Frank Kaminsky might be the best example of this. Exactly 10 percent of ESPN's top 100 recruits in the class of 2011 came from Chicago or its surrounding suburbs, but Kaminsky wasn't one of them. Where everyone else saw a slow and skinny big man, Ryan saw a center who could stretch the floor. After four years in the program, Kaminsky is the run away favorite to win the Wooden Award this season.
The system works, but at a certain point, nothing is going to top size, speed and talent deep in the NCAA Tournament. It isn't a coincidence that Wisconsin made five Sweet 16 appearances under Ryan while breaking through to the Elite Eight just once before last season. It's why Sam Dekker has been such a game-changer for the Badgers.
There was never really a question that Dekker would end up anywhere else. The Sheboygan native gave a verbal commitment to Wisconsin after his sophomore season and stayed committed even as he shot up national rankings. By the time he was entering his senior season, Dekker was the No. 17 overall prospect in the country per ESPN and something of a burgeoning local legend. He cemented that reputation forever in the state title game as a senior.
Dekker's Sheboygan Area Lutheran High School team was trailing Racine Lutheran most of the championship game, until the star forward took over at the end. He scored 12 of his 40 points in the final 50 seconds of regulation, capped with an incredible pull-up three-pointer to give his school the lead in the final seconds:
Expectations were sky high for Dekker entering Madison. It wasn't that he failed to live up to them as much he kept Wisconsin and its fans wanting more. More assertiveness in driving to the lane, more frequent scoring outbursts, more consistency. Dekker's talent has always shown through in flashes. Wisconsin needed him to be that player every game.
Dekker was solid as a freshman, averaging over nine points per game off the bench. He was expected to take a big leap as a sophomore, but it never really happened. Instead of Kaminsky and Dekker acting as co-headliners, it often felt like Dekker was simply part of Kaminsky's supporting cast. He bumped his scoring average up over 12 points per game but wasn't much a factor in the Badgers' incredible win over Arizona in the Elite Eight, scoring only seven points on 2-of-5 shooting as Kaminsky played the hero with 28 points.
Dekker was great against Kentucky in Wisconsin's one-point loss in the Final Four, setting up another year of hope. When news starting circulating that Dekker had actually grown two inches over the summer, the hype reached another level. Then he dominated at summer camps hosted by LeBron James and Kevin Durant and everyone thought Dekker's breakthrough had finally arrived.
Sam Dekker seemed to be consensus "best player" at LeBron Camp. Made lot of shots when I was watching. If Kaminsky is best UW guy, watch out— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) July 13, 2014
Sam Dekker was the best player at LeBron Camp in Vegas last summer and most sessions it wasn't close.— Zac Jackson (@FSOhioZJackson) December 4, 2014
It just didn't happen as immediately as expected, as Dekker played through an ankle injury for most of the first half of the season. While Kaminsky raised his game to become arguably the most productive player in the country, Dekker's statline barely increased. Wisconsin was still waiting.
Finally, it all came together on Thursday night in the Sweet 16. Dekker was as dominant as he's ever been, scoring 15 in the first half to finish with a career-high 23 points. When he decided to get to the hoop, there was nothing North Carolina could do about it:
The Carolina roster is full of big, athletic players -- the type of recruits that normally fall outside of the periphery of what Ryan can bring to Madison. It was evident on Thursday that Dekker is exactly that type of player. Even as his outside shot wasn't falling (1-of-5 from three), he was beating UNC's stable of All-Americans to the spot on the court he needed to get to.
Dekker wasn't waiting around for Kaminsky to take over. He wasn't coasting on ability and content to play his role. Instead, he was asserting himself in every situation. North Carolina was hanging tough, but Dekker wasn't going to let Wisconsin lose.
From a scouting standpoint, Dekker has everything the NBA looks for in a wing. He has the size and the frame at 6'9, 230 pounds. He has the ability to put the ball on the floor make plays for himself or others off the dribble. He's terrific at working angles off the ball and finding space to cut. He also has pro athleticism.
Dekker will need to become a more consistent shooter. He only made 31.6 percent of the 3.7 attempts he took from deep per game. As a player who doesn't turn 21 until May, he has plenty of time to figure that out. The things he can do at 6'9, 230 pounds are not found outside of the NBA. Right now, DraftExpress has him at No. 21 overall in the 2015 draft, 11 spots behind Kaminsky. If he plays the way he did on Thursday, there's no doubt Dekker has the potential to be Wisconsin's best pro prospect.
Wisconsin's win sets up an Elite Eight rematch with Arizona. It'll pin Dekker against arguably the best wing defender in the country, Wildcats sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. He might also see the manchild that is Stanley Johnson, Arizona's 6'7, 240-pound, 18-year-old wing.
Arizona is every bit as big as Wisconsin. Sean Miller team is better defensively, too. It's going to take an incredible team effort for the Badgers to do what they did last season and make it back to the Final Four for a likely matchup with Kentucky. This time, finally, Sam Dekker looks ready.
SB Nation presents: How Wisconsin will win the 2015 NCAA Tournament