Sam Dekker shows Wisconsin is more than just POY candidate Frank Kaminsky

LOS ANGELES — As everyone else in the Wisconsin locker room showered Sam Dekker with praise after the top-seeded Badgers' 79-72 victory over North Carolina, assistant coach Greg Gard took a more measured approach.

Gard was thrilled Dekker delivered 23 points and 10 rebounds in a high-stakes Sweet 16 game, but he views the junior forward's career-best performance as a tantalizing hint of what he's capable of rather than as a sign he is ready to put the Badgers on his back for the rest of March.

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"I think it's still in flashes," Gard said. "The sky's the limit for him, but I don't think he's anywhere near where he can be. He has to continue to get stronger, continue to mature and get more consistent as a ball handler and perimeter shooter. He has unlimited potential, but he has a ways to go to fully tap into that."

If Dekker's brilliant performance was merely a flash rather than a breakthrough, at the very least it was a well-timed one. Wisconsin needed a hero to emerge to keep its Final Four hopes alive with national player of the year candidate Frank Kaminsky off to a slow start, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig misfiring from the perimeter and upset-minded North Carolina burying threes and scoring in transition at an unnerving clip.

Fifteen of Dekker's points came in the first half when the rest of his teammates combined to shoot 5 of 22 against North Carolina's aggressive man-to-man defense. He kept Wisconsin within two at the half by attacking the basket off the dribble or scoring via backdoor cuts, giving the Badgers an offensive presence at the rim and making the Tar Heels pay for overplaying on the perimeter.

Other players stepped up to spearhead Wisconsin's comeback when its deficit ballooned to seven midway through the second half, but Dekker still came through with one of the game's biggest crunch-time baskets. When Isaiah Hicks switched onto Dekker because of a screen, the Wisconsin forward took his new defender into the post, called for the ball and spun around him for a layup that put the Badgers back up by four points with 1:08 remaining.

"I thought I played a pretty good game," Dekker said. "It wasn't a complete 40 minutes, but early in the first half I thought we needed a spark, and I saw some opportunities in the open court to give us a spark. ... I just tried to stay on attack mode. My shot wasn't falling like I'd like it to be, so I just tried to take it to the lane more and get some easy buckets."

Sam Dekker (15) celebrates with Frank Kaminsky during Wisconsin's win over UNC on Thursday. (USAT)
Sam Dekker (15) celebrates with Frank Kaminsky during Wisconsin's win over UNC on Thursday. (USAT)

If Kaminsky has become the face of Wisconsin basketball and one of the nation's most recognizable players during his brilliant senior season, Thursday was a reminder the Badgers are far more than just a one-man team. Dekker was one of several Badgers who stepped up to support Kaminsky on a night when he had to work hard to finish with 19 points and eight rebounds

Koenig and Josh Gasser both sank critical late 3-pointers. Gasser relentlessly chased North Carolina star Marcus Paige around screens the whole night. Reserve guard Zak Showalter delivered maybe the biggest spark, scoring a backdoor layup to give Wisconsin its first lead of the second half and then adding to it with a steal and layup on the ensuing possession.

"We're not defined by one player," Gasser said. "Tonight just showed the balance and depth of our team. Different guys can step up at different moments."

Nonetheless, the biggest star was Dekker, who flashed the same combination of size, skill and athleticism that had NBA scouts salivating at the LeBron James camp this past summer. Dekker's performance there was so good that it had some touting him as a potential first-team All-American candidate and future NBA lottery pick.

Though Dekker has instead served as a secondary scorer in support of Kaminsky, he has still averaged an efficient 13.3 points per game this season and taken great strides as a defender. He has averaged 20 points per game in the NCAA tournament and saved his best performance for Thursday night even if his coaches still see room for long-term improvement.

"Somebody was going to have to make plays at the rim," Gard said. "We had to have somebody break them down off the dribble or make some backcuts to relieve that pressure, and Sam was the one who was able to do it."